Tamil Tigers block voters as Sri Lanka chooses new president

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The Independent Online

The two leading candidates were running neck and neck as Sri Lanka voted in presidential elections that could end up making the difference between peace and war.

The Tamil Tiger rebels prevented Sri Lankans living in the areas they control from voting by force - an unexpected development yesterday that could seriously affect the results. Although there were 13 candidates, there are only two with any chance of winning.

Ranil Wickramasinghe is the architect of the ceasefire with the Tigers that has lasted since 2002. He was up against Mahinda Rajapaksa, the Prime Minister, a hardliner who wants to renegotiate the ceasefire and is opposed to meeting any of the Tigers' demands. Their diametrically opposed views meant the vote turned into a referendum on the peace process. The Tigers have been fighting for more than two decades for an independent homeland for ethnic Tamils in the north and east. More than 64,000 people died during the war. The ceasefire has brought three and a half years of relative peace, but analysts are warning that it is crumbling.

The Tigers' decision to prevent the 100,000 or so Sri Lankans who live in areas they control from voting could cost Mr Wickramasinghe many votes. He has a lot of support among Tamils because of his willingness to listen to their demands for some form of autonomy, and the Tigers were expected to allow people to cross from the areas they control, where there are no polling stations, into government-controlled territory to vote. But those who tried to cross yesterday met a barrier of burning tyres - a traditional sign they are not allowed to cross. Those who ignored it were stopped and beaten by Tigers cadres guarding the checkpoints.

The Tigers also prevented voting in the city of Jaffna, which is controlled by the government but dominated by Tamils. One man who tried to vote in Jaffna was seen being beaten on the head by Tigers supporters.

Out of 700,000 registered voters in the Northern province, an hour and a half before polls closed only 1,500 had voted. One polling station reported only four voters. But overall turnout was still between 55 and 60 per cent because huge numbers were voting in the Sinhalese south - as many as 80 per cent according to local media.

The election was relatively peaceful compared to previous years. Two Tigers were killed when a bomb they were trying to set went off prematurely, and European Union monitors had to flee the city of Batticaloa after grenades exploded.

There are conflicting views as to why the Tigers stopped people from voting. Officially they never called for a boycott and said they would not interfere. Many expected them to allow voting because it would favour Mr Wickramasinghe. Some believe the Tigers blamed Mr Wickramasinghe's previous government for a split within their ranks, when a renegade faction led by Colonel Karuna broke away from them. Mr Wickramasinghe has always denied it, but a week ago a prominent member of his party boasted it had been behind the split. Others believe the Tigers wanted the hardline Mr Rajapaksa to win. With him in power, the Tigers could unilaterally declare independence, arguing to the outside world they had no choice.

But in the capital, Colomobo, many said their choice of candidate was influenced as much by the parlous state of the economy as by the war. "I voted for Rajapaksa," said Poornima Alwis, an accountant. "I'm worried he may take us back to war, but... his economic policies are better."