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Sri Lanka arrests defeated presidential candidate

COLOMBO (Reuters) - Sri Lanka’s military arrested defeated presidential candidate General Sarath Fonseka on Monday on charges he conspired against the president while serving as the country’s top military officer.

General Sarath Fonseka speaks to the media from his hotel in Colombo, January 27, 2010. REUTERS/Asanka-Brendon Ratnayake

Fonseka lost the January 26 election to President Mahinda Rajapaksa by an 18 point margin and has since accused his former commander-in-chief of rigging the vote. The government in turn has accused him of a coup and assassination plot.

The arrest caps a rapid fall from grace for the outspoken commander who was feted as a national hero after leading the army against the Tamil Tigers. He quit his military post in November to run as the candidate of a disparate opposition alliance.

Lakshman Hulugalle, director of the state-run Media Centre for National Security, said Fonseka had been arrested by military police and would be tried by court-martial that will be closed to the public.

“He was having discussions with various political party leaders and the opposition to overthrow the government and president, and getting into politics and planning to divide the army while he was still serving,” Hulugalle said.

Witnesses said several hundred military police had surrounded Fonseka’s office, which police first raided nine days ago to search for evidence of the coup plot.

“He was dragged away in a very disgraceful manner in front of our own eyes,” Sri Lanka Muslim Congress leader Rauff Hakeem told Reuters. One of Fonseka’s security officers, I.P. Herath, confirmed the account.

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The general stood side-by-side with Rajapaksa in May after the defeat of the Tamil Tiger separatists in a 25-year war, but they later fell out over what Fonseka said were false coup allegations and a promotion to chief of defence staff which stripped him of key powers.

Rumours that Fonseka planned to enter the political arena surfaced as far back as August, but the general denied any interest at the time.

The presidential campaign turned increasingly bitter and personal, with Fonseka and Rajapaksa trading allegations of corruption and misconduct.

On the night votes were being counted, soldiers surrounded the hotel where Fonseka was staying with other opposition leaders in what the general said was an attempt to arrest him.

The military said the troops had been sent to arrest army deserters who were with the general that it suspected of plotting a coup, possibly involving the assassination of Rajapaksa and his family.

Since then, the government has arrested at least 37 of Fonseka’s staff including 15 former army officers working for him. The army last week also forced 14 serving senior officers, seen as Fonseka loyalists, to retire for engaging in politics.

Sri Lanka’s stock market, which has gained 5.5 percent since the election despite Fonseka’s vow to fight the results, was not expected to be affected by the arrest.