Voting in crucial provincial elections opens in Sri Lanka

Other News Materials 23 August 2008 07:46 (UTC +04:00)

Voting in a crucial poll in two of Sri Lanka's nine provinces began Saturday morning concluding a violent campaign marred by reports of shooting, arson and voter intimidation.

Sri Lanka's government regards the vote in the North Central province, 180 kilometres north-east of the capital Colombo and Sabaragamuwa province, 100 kilometres south-east of Colombo, a key test of popular support for its campaign against Tamil rebels in the northern part of the country.

Polling stations opened at 7 a.m. (0130 GMT) for the approximately 2.1 million voters eligible in the two provinces and are to close at 4 p.m. Results are expected for early Sunday.

An escalation of violence was reported Wednesday and Thursday, prompting the government to deploy the army on Friday to reduce violence.

The ruling United People's Freedom Alliance (UPFA) led by President Mahinda Rajapaksa has been calling on voters to endorse the ongoing military operations against the Tamil rebels.

"Vote for the UPFA and strengthen our hands to end terrorism," President Rajapaksa said.

Hours before voting started the state-run Sri Lanka Broadcasting Corporation announced that government troops were 12 kilometres south of the rebel stronghold of Kilinochchi after capturing another rebel-held town Friday.

The main opposition United National Party (UNP), led by former Prime Minister Ranil Wickremesinghe, criticized the government for misusing the military campaign for political purposes.

More than 20,000 police, backed by the army, have been deployed for the elections while more than 10,000 independent monitors are involved in monitoring the poll.

Overnight monitors reported a series of incidents of national identity cards being collected from voters, which effectively prevents people from voting, dpa reported.