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Sri Lanka's war-hit ethnic Tamils trickle to elect local councils in former war zone
JAFFNA, Sri Lanka (AP) ' Voters in Sri Lanka's northern Tamil heartland trickled to polling stations Saturday to elect local councils following the country's long civil war.
The local elections have assumed unprecedented national significance, with some ethnic Tamil political party leaders saying a victory would be a mandate to press for self-rule in the South Asian island nation's Tamil-majority north and east.
President Mahinda Rajapaksa's ruling party, for its part, hopes a victory for its allies would blunt calls for an international war crimes investigation and vindicate the harsh tactics that killed thousands of Tamil civilians here in the final months the 25-year civil war, which ended in May 2009.
Armed soldiers stood guard Saturday throughout Jaffna, the capital of Northern Province and the main Tamil city, and most shops were shut.
Residents who have faced years of violence and forced boycotts have been less enthusiastic in voting in past elections. Also they've been preoccupied trying to rebuild their lives or searching for relatives missing in the war.
Vallipuram Rasendran, a 50-year-old farmer from Maruthanar Madam village, said he voted in the hope of getting help for cultivating his land.
The government lifted a ban on media traveling to the former conflict zones in time for the elections but policemen guarding polling booths intervened to stop reporters and photographers from covering the vote.
The Tamil regions in the island's north and east ' areas once controlled by the Tamil Tigers rebels ' account for 26 of the 65 local council races that were being decided Saturday. There are no reliable pre-election polls to predict the outcome.
Sri Lanka's top officials, including Rajapaksa and Cabinet ministers, jumped into the fight for minority Tamil votes with help from a pro-government Tamil paramilitary-cum-political party. Officials have cut ribbons on projects for sports complexes, played cricket with local youths and promised to rebuild Tamil homes.
It is a rare effort for a minor ballot, but the governing United People's Freedom Alliance coalition insists it is committed to ethnic reconciliation ' though none of its touted programs toward healing has begun.
This victory "is of value to the government," Sports Minister Mahindananda Aluthgamage told The Associated Press earlier while campaigning in the former Tamil Tiger northern rebel base of Kilinochchi. "It will enable us to tell the world that we have won the confidence of the Tamil people after winning the war."
Since the war ended, former rebel proxy Tamil National Alliance has won most of the region's parliamentary seats. But local elections held last year in Jaffna dealt the alliance a major blow by handing control to the governing coalition.
Saturday's election was held in villages and smaller towns around Jaffna.
The government has said the exercise proves Tamils are open to working with it and are keen to reap its campaign promises including the release of war prisoners, reconstruction of destroyed homes and reviving commerce and the job market in their shattered communities.
Lawmaker Suresh Premachandran said his Tamil National Alliance complained to the elections commissioner that a group he believes was military, in uniforms and carrying rifles, forcibly collected polling cards used to identify eligible voters in many parts of Kilinochchi on Friday night with the apparent aim of impersonating them.
Ethnic Tamil politicians said alleged intimidation of Tamil candidates during the campaign raised concerns about possible government interference in the results. They accused ruling party supporters of campaigning long after the stipulated time and using the army to influence voters. The supporters were seen dropping election propaganda material near a polling station in the town of Thirunelveli near Jaffna.