A Tamil candidate for landmark polls in Sri Lanka's former warzone fled a mob attack Friday as the man tipped to become the region's chief minister accused the army of intimidating voters.
Many Tamils complain they are treated as second-class citizens and face discrimination, and Saturday's vote is seen as crucial in reducing ethnic tensions.
Anandi Saseedaran, 42, told how dozens of armed men surrounded her house on the eve of the Jaffna region's first ballot for a semi-autonomous council, forcing her to flee with the help of supporters.
One of the leaders of her party, retired Supreme Court judge K. Wigneswaran who is expected to be elected the region's chief minister, said security forces were trying to scare voters away from the ballot box.
"The army is going brazenly in uniform attacking people and saying they must not go to vote," Wigneswaran, 74, told AFP at the modest office of his Tamil National Alliance (TNA) in the heart of Jaffna.
Jaffna is the capital of the battle-scarred northern province, home to over a million Tamils and also the Hindu cultural centre of Sri Lanka's second-largest ethnic group.
Tamils say the poll is being held under international pressure on Colombo to share power with Tamils.
The United States, which has been pressing Sri Lanka over alleged human rights abuses during the island's ethnic civil war that ended in 2009, was swift to condemn the attack.
"The attack should be transparently and independently investigated and the perpetrators should be brought to justice swiftly," the US embassy in Colombo, 400 kilometres (250 miles) south of Jaffna, said in a statement.
"They (the military) do not want us to have a clear-cut majority," Wigneswaran said, while accusing the military of launching a pre-dawn attack on Saseedaran's home.
Wigneswaran said dozens of armed men stormed Saseedaran's home, outside Jaffna, and wounded at least eight people including a local election monitor. They have been hospitalised.
Campaign for Free and Fair Elections, a poll monitoring group, said the tyres of vehicles used by monitors were slashed, delaying transport of the injured to hospital.
"My supporters took me to safety when about 70 armed men surrounded my house," Saseedaran told reporters. "They said they were looking for me and they wanted to kill me."
She said the attackers were led by ruling party men and backed by security forces.
The military denied the allegation as "baseless" and demanded a police investigation.
"The security forces have no involvement in this election-related violent act," military spokesman Ruwan Wanigasooriya said.
Wigneswaran said a large army presence was causing unease among the local population which he says lives under constant surveillance.
"This is an occupation army. They are here for a political purpose and not for security reasons," he said.
The party leader said that after security forces claimed victory over separatist Tamil Tiger rebels in 2009, there was no longer a threat of violence in the region and troops could allow police to maintain order.
A foreign election monitor said people appeared keen to vote but were nervous about the security presence.
"The overhanging army is causing a fear factor," the monitor said, asking not to be named. He said they had found several instances of the military favouring ruling party candidates and disfiguring rivals' campaign posters.
President Mahinda Rajapakse campaigned in Jaffna last week in support of his candidates and accused the TNA, a coalition of several Tamils groups including ex-militants, of raising expectations of a separate state.
"The TNA is misleading the people by promising self-government and independence," he told a rally of his United People's Freedom Alliance.
Pictures of Rajapakse greet Jaffna residents from dozens of huge billboards in the city.
"Say no to destruction, never again," one of them read, referring to decades of fighting that killed thousands and destroyed homes and industries.
Security forces wrested control over the area in 1995, after the guerrillas ran it as the capital of the de facto separate state for five years.
Wigneswaran said rapid economic development, including a fast railway and excellent highway infrastructure, served the government's military aim of "occupying" the region.
He said the 36-member Provincial Council to be elected Saturday will have no powers to address major local grievances, but was a starting point toward winning their rights.
"We will use the council to create awareness and get the international community to pressure the government," he said.