Sri Lanka's Tamil-majority north votes in provincial polls

Colombo, Sep 21 (IANS) Sri Lanka's Tamil-majority Northern Province and two other regions Saturday voted to elect three provincial councils, four years after the Tamil Tiger rebels were vanquished.

Over four million people were eligible to vote in the Northern, North Western and Central provinces, the government's news portal news.lk reported.

Serpentine queues were seen in front of polling centres as hundreds of ethnic Tamils, young and old, cast their votes in Jaffna. In Matale, Mannar, Kandy, the queues spilled over to the roads. Elderly and disabled voters were carried by their relatives to polling stations.

"We want a settlement for the Tamils. That's why we came to vote this time. We've been waiting so many years - now we want peace," an elderly woman voter told BBC.

The Northern Province is the only region which has never had its own council, BBC said.

Election Commissioner Mahinda Deshappriya said voting went on peacefully.

Police and election observers said there were no major incidents of polling violation from any of the provinces.

The People's Action for Free and Fair Elections group, which has over 1,000 monitors in the north, told Xinhua the house of a polling agent was set on fire but no one was hurt.

Voters will elect 56 members to the Central Province, 50 members to the North Western Province and 36 members to the Northern Province. As many as 3,743 polling stations were set up in 54 constituencies.

A total of 4,363,252 registered voters from the three provinces were eligible to cast their votes. They include 1,889,557 from the Central Province, 719,477 from the Northern Province, and 1,754,218 from the North Western Province.

Postal voting was held Sep 13 and 14. As many as 111,383 voters were eligible to cast their votes by post.

As many as 476 counting centres were set up in the three provinces.

Vast swathes of the northern region were once strongholds of Tamil Tiger rebels, who fought against the army for a separate homeland as Sri Lanka was plunged into a civil war for 26 years. The rebels were defeated in May 2009.

The conflict left at least 100,000 people dead, but there are no confirmed figures for thousands of civilian deaths in the last months of battle. A UN investigation said it was possible that up to 40,000 people were killed at that time. The government puts the figure at 9,000, BBC reported.

In Saturday's polls, new transparent ballot boxes imported from India were introduced instead of the traditional wooden boxes in select polling centres.

The Tamil National Alliance complained of intimidation ahead of the polls. One of its popular women candidates was reportedly attacked Friday.

The New York Times said men wearing army uniforms were visiting houses to tell people not to vote for the alliance.

Ananthi Sasitharan, a Tamil candidate in the elections, said a dozen or so men have been lurking outside her house in Jaffna for the past few days.

"The military has been visiting houses all over the area and telling people not to vote for the Tamil National Alliance," said Mavai S. Senathirajah, deputy leader of the Tamil alliance. "We will not be intimidated."

But military spokesman Brig. Ruwan Wanigasooriya told the NYT that "there was no involvement on the part of the army", and that the military was cooperating in an investigation on the matter.

Deputy Elections Commissioner R.M.A.L. Ratnayaka told Xinhua that 25 special polling stations were set up for people displaced in the war.

Over 38,000 public officials and 24,500 police personnel were deployed.

An estimated 1,600 local monitors were deployed along with four Commonwealth observers and 20 South Asian and Asian observers.

Diplomats from Canada, Germany and the US were also briefed ahead of the voting.

UN Secretary General Ban Ki-moon has urged all parties to work together after the elections to address the national and post-war agenda "constructively and collaboratively".

Transparency International Sri Lanka said that over 500 complaints of election violations have been reported, with over 200 on abuse of state resources alone.

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