Sri Lankan Tamils vote in former war zone amid charges of intimidation

By Shihar Aneez

JAFFNA, Sri Lanka (Reuters) - Voters in Sri Lanka thronged polling stations on Saturday in an election that threatens to rekindle animosity between the government and ethnic minority Tamils, four years after the military crushed separatists and ended a 26-year war.

The provincial council election is the first in 25 years in the north, once the heartland of Tamil Tiger separatists. President Mahinda Rajapaksa's government held the poll after facing international pressure to restore democracy.

Defeat for the government would be largely symbolic. But victory for the main Tamil party, the Tamil National Alliance (TNA), could reignite calls for autonomy.

Long queues of patient voters formed at polling stations, most with a holy ash mark on their foreheads, a sign they had attended prayers at Hindu temples.

Many voters called for restitution of land, the departure of the national army, accused of human rights abuses in the final stages of the war, and some even for a separate state.

Many were clearly keen to elect their own local leaders - 38 provincial councillors - for the first time in three decades. But some candidates complained of intimidation and irregularities.

"Tamils need independence. We need our lands back. We need the right to move freely," said Gopalasuthanthiran Pushpavathi, a 51-year mother of four, after voting at a polling station behind the imposing Nallur Temple.

"I am happy that we have six votes in my family and we cast the votes with the hope of getting a separate province that is ruled by ourselves," said Kandiah Thiyagarajah, 63.

Polling closed at 1030 GMT and local election monitors said a vehicle of a TNA candidate was reported to have been shot at in Kodikamam, 25 km from Jaffna town.

PLENTY OF COMPLAINTS

Election officials said they received "plenty of complaints", including intimidation of voters.

N. Achchuthan, the deputy election high commissioner for the northern province, told Reuters voter turnout was estimated at above 60 percent, or more than double the 23.3 percent of the last parliamentary election, held in April 2010.

Turnout in the other four districts including the Tamil Tiger rebels' de facto capital, Kilinochchi, has been more than 60 percent.

The Centre for Monitoring Election Violations (CMEV) said the house of a TNA polling agent was burnt and some voters were intimidated in Mullaitivu district, where thousands of Tamil people were said to have killed in May 2009.

"Specific incidents where voters have been intimidated, allegedly by ruling party politicians and the military, have resulted in fear among voters in these locations," the Centre said.

The military rejects any suggestion of involvement by the security forces in violence of any sort.

A foreign observer said polling went off well in polling centres in Jaffna.

"But there have been many cases of intimidation reported outside the polling centres," the observer told Reuters on condition of anonymity.

Many expect an overwhelming victory for the TNA, the former political proxy of the defeated rebels, who launched the war for a separate state to end what Tamil activists saw as systematic discrimination by Sri Lanka's Sinhalese majority.

Rajapaksa has a majority of more than two-thirds in parliament and controls the eight other provinces. He appears determined to win in the north, where campaign posters for the ruling coalition plastered the walls.

The president has faced international pressure to bring to book those accused of war crimes committed at the end of the war, and to boost reconciliation efforts.

His government has rejected accusations of rights abuses and Rajapaksa in July ordered an inquiry into mass disappearances, mostly of Tamils, at the end of the war. (Reporting by Shihar Aneez; Editing by Clarence Fernandez)

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