TRINCOMALEE, Sri Lanka (AFP) — Sri Lanka's government on Sunday claimed victory in key provincial elections in the ethnically-mixed east of the island, saying the win is a major boost for its war against the Tamil Tigers.
Election officials confirmed the government and its allies were on track to win control over a 35-member provincial council in the east coastal region, a part of which was under rebel control before an offensive last year.
"The government victory at the eastern polls has shattered the wild dreams of the West-backed Eelamists (Tamil Tigers)," said Sri Lanka's environment minister, Patali Champika Ranawaka.
The elections for a provincial council in the tense eastern coastal area, which was until last year partly under rebel control, are part of plans by President Mahinda Rajapakse to defeat the ethnic rebels as quickly as possible.
He wants to partially devolve power from his ethnic Sinhalese-dominated government to the TMVP, a party comprising Tamil Tiger defectors, in order to undermine guerrilla demands for a separate ethnic state.
The president, whose government only has a narrow majority in the national parliament, also badly needs a show of public support and patience as the decades-old civil war intensifies.
But the Liberation Tigers of Tamil Eelam (LTTE) struck back, sinking a navy cargo ship in Trincomalee hours before polling started on Saturday in an embarrassing breach of a massive security blanket.
The LTTE said the "MV Invincible," which was being loaded with ammunition destined for government troops fighting in the north, was holed by a Sea Tiger commando unit.
The military also blamed the LTTE for a bomb attack next to a crowded cafe in the eastern town of Ampara late Friday that killed 12 civilians and wounded at least 36.
The polls were the first to be held in the tsunami-hit and ethnically mixed eastern districts of Batticaloa, Trincomalee and Ampara in 20 years, and Colombo is determined to show normality has returned there.
But the president's ruling United People's Freedom Alliance has been criticised for its alliance with the Tamil Makkal Viduthalai Pullikal (TMVP), or Tamil People's Liberation Tigers, who split from the LTTE in 2004.
Although TMVP leaders say they have embraced the democratic process, they continue to be accused of murder, harassing voters and opposition candidates and kidnapping children to deploy as fighters.
Sunanda Deshapriya of the Free Media Movement (FMM), a Sri Lankan rights group, listed a catalogue of irregularities -- including ballot box stuffing, intimidation and beatings.
"Police said they are helpless because these people are backed by powerful politicians," he said. "Unfortunately, people cannot express their views freely. These polls were not free and fair."
Similar complaints were made by two other non-governmental organisations -- People's Action for Free and Fair Elections (PAFFRELL) and the Centre for Monitoring Election Violence (CMEV).
"People are really frightened to go out and vote," said PAFFRELL chairman Kingsley Rodrigo, supporting complaints by opposition parties that President Rajapakse and his allies were determined to win at all costs.
According to the CMEV, even 13 and 14-year-old TMVP cadres were seen casting their ballots in one part of the east.
The results are expected later Sunday, and the postal votes counted so far have put the government well in the lead. Media Minister Anura Priyadharshana Yapa insisted the elections were "free and fair."
The main opposition UNP, which has teamed up with the biggest Muslim party, the SLMC, says the pro-government Tamil Tiger defectors have instilled a climate of fear in the east.
"People are being terrorised, chased away by armed gangs," SLMC leader Rauff Hakeem complained.
Nevertheless, he hopes to become chief minister of the east -- and push for a restoration of a Norwegian-brokered truce and resumption of what he says should be "bold" peace talks that address the grievances of both minority Tamils and Muslims.
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