Muslim party quits in major blow to Sri Lanka leader

Sri Lanka President Mahinda Rajapakse

COLOMBO - Sri Lanka's President Mahinda Rajapakse suffered a setback to his re-election hopes Monday when a key minister and his minority Muslim party quit the coalition government.

Industry and Commerce Minister Rishad Bathiudeen said he was switching allegiance to Maithripala Sirisena, the main opposition candidate seeking to topple Rajapakse in a January 8 election.

It is the latest in a series of blows for the 69-year-old president, who was seen as the favourite when he called snap polls last month but has seen his former health minister Sirisena garner significant support.

Bathiudeen accused Rajapakse of failing to restrain a radical Buddhist group accused of attacking mosques, churches and businesses run by religious minorities in the Buddhist-majority country.

"I asked the president to stop these religious hate attacks, but he failed to take action against offenders," Bathiudeen told reporters in Colombo.

He accused the government of being behind an attack on Muslims in the coastal resort town of Aluthgama in June that left at least four people dead.

And he said some 69 elected representatives from his All Ceylon Makkal (People's) Congress (ACMC) were joining the opposition in a mass defection of Muslims politicians from the government.

Muslims, the second largest minority in the island after Hindu Tamils, account for about 10 per cent of the electorate and could emerge as king-makers in January's presidential election if the majority Sinhalese are split down the middle.

Both Rajapakse and Sirisena are members of the majority Sinhala Buddhist community.

However, Sirisena is seen securing the support of ethnic and religious minorities who feel alienated during Rajapakse's rule in the past nine years.

The Tamil National Alliance, the main party representing Hindu Tamils, has not formally pledged support to either of the two main Sinhalese candidates, but has strongly hinted that it will support Sirisena.

That would make it even more difficult for Rajapakse to win an election that he himself called two years ahead of schedule.

The country's main party of Buddhist monks, the JHU, supports Sirisena, while a more radical outfit known as the Bodu Bala Sena, or Buddhist Force, favours Rajapakse.