Sri Lankan prime minister claims victory in presidential election |

Sri Lankan prime minister claims victory in presidential election

Associated Press

COLOMBO, Sri Lanka – Prime Minister Mahinda Rajapakse, a hard-liner toward Tamil rebels, won Sri Lanka’s presidential election by a narrow margin, an election official said Friday.With all ballots counted, Rajapakse received 50 percent of the vote, said A.D. de Silva, a member of the Election Commission. Opposition leader Ranil Wickremesinghe received 48 percent. Eleven other candidates split the remaining ballots.A formal announcement of the results was scheduled for later Friday.The Prime Minister’s Office appealed to the Sri Lankan people “to behave peacefully and celebrate the victory without harming opponents.”Balloting was smooth Thursday in western and southern parts of the island nation and overall turnout was 75 percent, election officials said.But in the north and east – territory of the feared Tamil Tiger rebels – grenade attacks, roadblocks and fear kept many Tamils from voting. Others heeded a boycott called by pro-rebel groups, who complained neither of the main candidates would help them win a homeland in northeastern Sri Lanka.The Tamils, whose plight is at the heart of a civil war that has lasted more than two decades, make up just under 20 percent of Sri Lanka’s 19 million people but were potential kingmakers in the tightly contested election.The race pitted hardline Rajapakse against dovish opposition leader Wickremesinghe, whose softer line on peace talks with the rebels won him wide support among Tamils, a largely Hindu minority.The new president “will have to sort out the country’s main ethnic problem,” said D. Maulana, 35, who sells auto parts in Colombo. “As all of us know without that, nothing can go forward until it is over.”No polling stations were set up in Tiger strongholds because of security concerns, but the government set up special voting booths on the edge of insurgent territory to accommodate the more than 200,000 voters who live behind rebel lines.But officials said roadblocks and intimidation kept most from making it out of rebel territory to vote.Turnout was less than 1 percent in and around the northern Tamil city of Jaffna – the lowest ever in any of the Indian Ocean country’s 22 districts.Grenade blasts forced European Union observers to pull out of the eastern city of Batticaloa, the scene of frequent clashes between the Tigers and breakaway rebel factions. At least two people were killed in the attacks.In the Batticaloa district, split between the rebels and government, turnout was 43 percent, down from around 70 percent in the last presidential vote – a drop officials attributed to the fact that few Tamils from rebel areas voted.Perinban, a 57-year-old Tamil farmer from a rebel area near the eastern village of Vavunathivu, wanted to vote.But on his way to the polling station he saw a roadblock of burning tires and palm fronds and said he knew exactly what it meant: “Burning tires are a signal that we should not go beyond this.”The Tigers took up arms in 1983 over discrimination against Tamils by the predominantly Buddhist Sinhalese majority. Nearly 65,000 people have been killed in the conflict.A 2002 cease-fire ended major fighting, but peace talks stalled in disagreement over the rebels’ demands for broad autonomy, and clashes – especially between the Tigers and a breakaway faction – have intensified.Election Commissioner Danyananda Dissanayake said the overall vote was “largely peaceful and incident-free” compared with past balloting.Rajapakse, who turns 60 on Friday, has pledged to review the stalled peace process and not share political power or tsunami aid with the Tigers. His tough stand has won him wide support among Sri Lanka’s Sinhalese majority.”I am not a candidate for war … but it has to be an honorable peace,” he said after voting in southern Sri Lanka.Wickremesinghe, 56, who signed a cease-fire with the rebels in 2002 when he was prime minister, promised to strike a peace deal by granting Tamils a degree of autonomy. He also favored further liberalizing the economy.—Associated Press reporters Ruwan Weerakoon and Shimali Senanayake contributed to this report.Vail, Colorado

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