Sri Lanka's Tamils vote after decades of war

Sri Lanka's minority Tamils voted Saturday in a landmark election in the country's north they hope will give them a chance at self-rule after decades of ethnic conflict that claimed more than 100,000 lives.

The vote to elect members of a provincial council in the ex-Tamil rebel stronghold has been promoted by the UN Human Rights Council as a step towards ethnic reconciliation after decades of fighting that ended when Sri Lankan troops crushed Tamil Tiger separatists in 2009.

The poll in Northern Province was held amid international pressure on the Sinhalese-dominated national government to share power with the Tamil minority and against the backdrop of claims security forces were trying to scare voters away from the ballot box.

"Even though this is a local election, there is more interest in it locally and internationally," S. Arumainayaham, the top civil administrator in the provincial capital Jaffna, told reporters.

Printing press worker Anandan Kumaraswamy, 57, was among the first to vote near Jaffna's landmark Nallur Hindu temple. He said he was "praying for change".

The Northern Provincial Council was set up in 1987 but elections were never held and its functioning was controlled directly by the Sri Lankan president.

With just a few hours left of polling, over 50 percent of eligible voters in the battle-scarred and Tamil-dominated Northern Province had cast ballots to elect the council, which locals hope will be allowed to exercise semi-autonomous powers, officials said.

Retired Supreme Court judge K. Wigneswaran, expected to be elected the region's chief minister, said he wants to work with Colombo on pushing his Tamil National Alliance (TNA) manifesto, which calls for "self-government" for Tamils.

Wigneswaran's priorities are payment of war reparations, securing an army pull-out from the former combat zone and taking back land the military still occupies four years after defeating Tamil Tiger rebels who fought for outright independence.

"I will try to work with the (Colombo) government," Wigneswaran told AFP, but vowed to go to the international community if the government fails to cooperate.

Police guarded polling booths in and around Jaffna city, which lies 400 kilometres (250 miles) north of Colombo, but the TNA said there was intimidation of voters in remote areas.

In rural areas, "the military is asking voters not to cast their ballots", TNA candidate Dharmalingam Sithadthan told AFP. "There is also a big smear campaign against the TNA."

He said he visited more than 10 polling booths and noticed military intelligence officers urging voters "in a threatening manner" not to vote for the "house" -- the TNA's symbol. The national ruling party is also contesting the elections.

Jaffna's deputy elections commissioner S. Achchuthan said he had "plenty of complaints of intimidation", but there had been no major incidents so far.

"We are told military people in civilian clothing are intimidating voters. We have asked our staff to verify," he said.

Local journalists said a fake newspaper in the name of a pro-TNA daily was distributed Saturday claiming the TNA had withdrawn from the race.

President Mahinda Rajapakse has accused the TNA -- a coalition of several Tamil groups, including ex-militants -- of raising expectations of a separate state.

Wigneswaran has hit back, saying Rajapakse was maintaining an "occupation army" to keep Tamils under "constant surveillance".

"They are here for a political purpose, not for security reasons," he said. "They must go."

He complained to election authorities that troops visited the home of his sister at Aanakottai, outside Jaffna, and asked her not to vote for the TNA.

Among the TNA candidates is civil servant Anandi Saseedaran, 42, whose husband, a senior figure in the Tiger's political wing, disappeared after surrendering four years ago.

While thousands are still missing, the military says over 12,000 Tiger cadres who surrendered were "rehabilitated" and re-integrated in society.

Some 906 candidates are contesting the 36 seats up for grabs in the Northern Council. Two more seats are earmarked for the party with the most votes under a system of proportional representation.

There were elections for two other provincial councils in the largely Sinhalese North West and Central regions Saturday with President Rajapakse's party expected to win both.

Rajapakse has won almost every election since he led the campaign that crushed Tamil Tigers in 2009.

However, the spectacular military success has also triggered international calls to probe allegations his troops killed up to 40,000 Tamil civilians in the final months of fighting.