Rebel boycott, grenades mar Sri Lanka vote

Colombo, Nov 17 | Updated: Nov 18 2005, 05:40am hrs
Sri Lankans voted in a closely fought presidential poll on Thursday seen as a referendum on how to rescue the countrys faltering peace process and tsunami-hit economy, but a Tamil Tiger boycott and sporadic violence marred the election.

Heavily armed police carrying AK-47s guarded voting stations as polls closed in a two-horse race between hawkish left-wing Prime Minister Mahinda Rajapakse and right-wing opposition leader Ranil Wickremesinghe, seen as far more dovish towards the rebels.

But while there were long voting queues in the capital Colombo, a barricade of burning tyres and palm fronds belched black smoke by the gateway to rebel territory in the islands east as Tigers enforced a boycott. Several grenades exploded near rebel-held areas in the islands north and east, injuring four policemen and two civilians, and two suspected rebel cadres died when a bomb they were making exploded.

But officials said the poll was among the calmest in years. I am voting for Mahinda because he will not divide our nation and will protect its sovereignty, said 35-year-old auto rickshaw driver Jayantha Arunasiri at a polling station on the outskirts of Colombo.

But 40-year-old executive Nihal Perera said he had cast his ballot for Wickremesinghe. I am voting for Ranil for peace and economic development. This government has ruined the country. The streets of the government-controlled Jaffna peninsula, hemmed in by the Liberation Tiger of Tamil Eelams (LTTE) de facto state in the northeast, were deserted and residents said rebel fronts had warned them to stay at home.