Sri Lankan prime minister wins presidential election

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The Independent Online

Prime Minister Mahinda Rajapakse won Sri Lanka's presidential election by a slim margin, and said today that once in office he wants to hold face-to-face peace talks with the secretive leader of the rebel Tamil Tigers.

Throughout the campaign, Rajapakse took a hard line on the rebels, and his victory was clearly aided by a Tiger boycott that kept thousands of minority Tamils, who overwhelmingly supported his dovish opponent, away from the polls.

Soon after unofficial results became public, opposition leader Ranil Wickremesinghe's campaign demanded re-votes in key northern districts where many Tamils did not vote because of roadblocks and intimidation by rebels, said N K Weeragoda, the party's secretary. But party officials later said the request had been rejected.

Rajapakse received 4.88 million votes, or 50.29 percent of the total 9.7 million valid votes cast, said Election Commissioner Dayananda Dissanayake.

Wickremesinghe received 4.70 million, or 48.38 percent, and the remainder of the votes were cast for the other 11 candidates.

The Prime Minister's Office appealed to the Sri Lankan people "to behave peacefully and celebrate the victory without harming opponents."

Balloting was smooth yesterday 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 intimidation kept many Tamils from voting. Others heeded a boycott called by pro-rebel groups that 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.

Wickremesinghe's softer line on peace talks with the rebels won him wide support among Tamils, a largely Hindu minority.

But officials said roadblocks and intimidation kept most of the 200,000 Tamils living in rebel territory from voting, and that many of the more than 2 million Tamils in government areas also stayed away from the polls.

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.

That clearly helped Rajapakse, who turned 60 today and said in an interview with The Associated Press that he wants to hold talks with Tiger leader Velupillai Prabhakaran.

It's a pledge that Rajapakse made throughout the campaign, but one that may be easier said than done - Prabhakaran rarely sees anyone outside a tight inner circle and makes only a single public appearance a year on Heroes' Day, a Tiger holiday honouring guerillas killed fighting for a Tamil homeland in northeastern Sri Lanka.

Still, asked about his plans for Sri Lanka's stalled peace process, Rajapakse said: "I am ready to talk to the (Tigers), and I am ready to meet Prabhakaran."

From the campaign's outset, Rajapakse has promised peace but pledged to take a tough line on the rebels, saying he would never allow the establishment of an autonomous Tamil homeland in northeastern Sri Lanka, as the rebels demand, and allow direct foreign tsunami aid to the insurgents, who run a de facto state in northern and eastern strongholds.

The 26 December tsunami killed at least 31,000 people in Sri Lanka and swept away the homes or livelihoods of one million others.

Speaking of tsunami aid, Rajapakse said in the interview today: "We have a government, this is for government machinery so let the government machinery work."

That sentiment is not likely to please the Tigers, who want to run tsunami relief efforts in their territory and have repeatedly demanded access to some of the US$2 billion in tsunami aid promised to Sri Lanka.

Asked about those demands, Rajapakse said, "There is a government ... it's not about the rebels, they are citizens of this country and everybody is equal."

The Tigers took up arms in 1983 over discrimination against Tamils, most of whom are Hindu, 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 Tigers' demands for broad autonomy, and clashes - especially between the Tigers and a breakaway faction - have intensified.