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Sri Lanka's Tamil party wins landslide victory in key poll


Sri Lanka's main Tamil party won a landslide victory Sunday in landmark elections in the battle-scarred north, raising hopes of some degree of self-rule for the ethnic minority after decades of war.

The opposition Tamil National Alliance (TNA) won 30 out of 38 seats in polls for a provincial council in the former war zone.

The election was called by the government amid international pressure for the majority Sinhalese to share power with Tamils four years after the end of the bloody separatist conflict.

TNA leader C. V. Wigneswaran said the results were an overwhelming vote for self-rule for Tamils. He repeated his demand for the military to withdraw from the Tamil-dominated north, saying there was no reason for its presence since the end of the war in 2009.

"That (army presence) is the primary problem the Tamils of the northern province are having today," Wigneswaran told foreign media in the region's capital Jaffna shortly after results were announced.

"You have to get rid of the army. They must be put in barracks somewhere else," said Wigneswaran, who is set to become the region's chief minister.

Saturday's vote in the former rebel stronghold has been promoted by the UN Human Rights Council as a step towards ethnic reconciliation.

The Sinhalese-dominated national government has been under pressure to share power with Tamils who are a minority nationally but a majority in the battle-scarred north.

The TNA swept all five districts in the election for the Northern Provincial Council, results from the Department of Elections showed. The poll for the council, the first for 26 years, was held amid claims the military tried to intimidate and harass voters and a Tamil candidate.

President Mahinda Rajapakse's United People's Freedom Alliance which governs nationally won just seven seats in a humiliating defeat.

A Muslim party won one seat on the council.

In the district of Jaffna, 400 kilometres (250 miles) north of Colombo and home to over a million Tamils, the TNA secured more than 84 percent of the vote, exceeding its projections of 66 percent.

Wigneswaran said he was open to talks with the president on power-sharing arrangements in the north, and was seeking devolution in a united Sri Lanka, as set out in a statute in 1987, rather than separation.

"There is a fear of separation, but all we are asking for is a federal state which exists within the boundaries of Sri Lanka," Wigneswaran said. "We are for an undivided Sri Lanka and self-rule under a federal system."

Semi-autonomous provincial councils were established in 1987 as part of a plan to ease ethnic unrest. But elections had never been held for the northern council, which until now had been under direct presidential control.

Rajapakse has accused the TNA -- a coalition of several Tamil groups, including ex-militants -- of raising expectations of a separate state, a move opposed by the Sinhalese majority.

The government has said it will not give provincial councils power over land and police as originally envisaged in the 1987 statute.

Rajapakse's defeat in Saturday's election came despite the government pouring millions of dollars into rebuilding infrastructure damaged by decades of fighting. Many residents have complained that troops were still occupying their land four years after the end of the war.

Rajapakse has won almost every major 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.

There was no immediate reaction from Rajapakse's party, but the government information department on Saturday said the 68 percent turnout in the north was a good sign of "participatory democracy".

The election comes ahead of a Commonwealth heads of government summit due to take place in Colombo in mid-November which Canada has boycotted over human rights concerns.