Sri Lanka ruling party claims 'Western' push for regime change

COLOMBO - Sri Lanka's ruling party Wednesday expressed fears of a "Western conspiracy" to topple President Mahinda Rajapakse who faces an unexpected challenge at upcoming polls from his former health minister.

Plantations Minister Mahinda Samarasinghe said unnamed Western nations were trying to destabilise the country and were secretly backing Maithripala Sirisena, who quit the government last month to mount a challenge against his one-time boss.

Rajapakse, the region's longest serving ruler, called the election for January 8, two years ahead of schedule in a bid for an unprecedented third term.

Sirisena's defection is seen as a major threat to Rajapakse's authority, which also comes after his ruling Sri Lanka Freedom Party suffered a drop in popularity at local elections held in September.

"There is a systematic campaign to destabilise Sri Lanka," said Samarasinghe, who is also Rajapakse's special envoy on human rights. "Maithripala Sirisena entering as a candidate is part of that Western conspiracy."

Sri Lanka faces international censure over Colombo's failure to investigate allegations that its troops killed up to 40,000 ethnic minority Tamil civilians in the final stages of the separatist war in 2009.

Rajapakse has used criticism of his resistance to a UN-mandated probe into the allegations to strengthen his nationalistic credentials among the ethnic majority Sinhalese community.

Samarasinghe did not name the countries responsible for the alleged conspiracy, but he discounted reports that neighbouring India was behind the move.

"I don't want to pin point any country, but India is not one of those," he added. "We have close, strong ties with India."

International rights groups have accused Rajapakse of becoming authoritarian since winning a second term in 2010 after successfully overseeing the end of the 37-year war.

Sirisena's defection sparked an exodus, with 11 ruling party MPs also quitting, some of them accusing Rajapakse of running a corrupt regime and having a stranglehold on power.