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Former Sri Lankan President Mahinda Rajapaksa has been sworn in as prime minister after the country’s president sacked incumbent Ranil Wickremesinghe, in a surprise move that threatens political turmoil in the Indian Ocean nation.

The appointment was confirmed in a statement from President Maithripala Sirisena’s office on Friday, but Wickremesinghe later told local media that he remained the prime minister.

“I retain the confidence of the house. I am the prime minister and I have the majority,” Wickremesinghe said.

“According to the constitution, I’m the prime minister. That is not legal.”

The move ends a more than three-year-old coalition government that was formed on promises of economic reform and accountability for alleged atrocities committed during Rajapaksa’s 10-year rule at the close of Sri Lanka‘s bloody civil war.

Sirisena, who was health minister under Rajapaksa, joined forces with Wickremesinghe to defeat the former president in elections in January 2015.

He was elected as president largely thanks to the backing of Wickremesinghe’s United National Party (UNP).

WATCH: Rajapaksa leads Sri Lanka protests, calls for government change (2:07)

But earlier on Friday, Sirisensa’s United People’s Freedom Alliance (UPFA) had said it would quit the ruling coalition. 

‘Instability and uncertainty’

Relations between Sirisena and Wickremesinghe have soured since their parties suffered humiliating losses in February’s local council elections.

The pair have disagreed over economic policy and day-to-day administration of the government, and were also reported to have clashed in cabinet last week over government plans to lease a container terminal to neighbouring India. 

Earlier this year, Sirisena reneged on a pledge not to run for re-election, sparking tensions with Wickremesinghe who is believed to have his own presidential ambitions.     

Sirisena is also believed to be behind a failed attempt to impeach Wickremesinghe in April.

At the time, 122 legislators in the 225-member parliament voted to back Wickremesinghe. 

The ruling coalition has been further strained in recent days by strong criticism from Sirisena and his allies that ministers from Wickremesinghe’s party did not act properly in investigating an alleged assassination plot to kill the president and former Defence Secretary Gotabaya Rajapaksa, the new prime minister’s younger brother.

Al Jazeera’s Minelle Fernandez, reporting from Colombo, said Rajapaksa’s shock appointment has brought uncertainty to Sri Lanka. 

“There was no inkling that this might happen. It was only after the swearing-in that we started seeing videos and pictures of the ceremony,” she said.

“We are all still wondering what this means.” 

The question of who remained prime minister was ultimately up to the parliament, analysts said.

“This has to be resolved on the floor of the parliament,” said Gehan Gunatilleke, a human rights lawyer.

“The important question here is whether the prime minister enjoys the confidence of the parliament,” he told Al Jazeera.

“Now this happened late on a Friday evening. And there is a sense this was timed so the [Sirisena-bloc] gets a few days before parliament reconvenes to get the required numbers .”

Paikiasothy Saravanamuttu, executive director at the Centre for Policy Alternatives, a Colombo-based think-tank, said Rajapaksa “would not have made the decision if he did not have the numbers”.

“We are in a bit of a grey area at the moment. Until a new government is sworn in, there will be a certain amount of instability and uncertainty.”

Mahinda Amaraweera, a presidential aide, told The Associated Press news agency that Rajapaksa has the majority needed in the 225-member parliament to run a stable government.

Rajapaksa, who served as president from 2005 to 2015, put down the decades-old Tamil Tiger separatist struggle in May 2009 through a military assault that killed up to 40,000 ethnic Tamil civilians, according to rights groups.    

His government was also accused of corruption and murdering political opponents.   

Sirisena had pledged accountability for war atrocities, but has faced international criticism for being slow to deliver on justice.   

International rights groups have called for the prosecution of both the military and the Tigers, who were notorious for suicide bombings and enlisting child soldiers.

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