Sri Lankans Vote for President; Tamil Rebels Keep Some People Away

Polls have closed in Sri Lanka's presidential election, with fears of low voter turnout in areas of the country controlled by the separatist Tamil Tiger guerrilla group. The rebels dismissed the election as meaningless, despite a widely held view that its outcome could determine the future of Sri Lanka's peace process.

Witnesses say burning tires served as warnings to people to stay away from polling stations in parts of Sri Lanka's north and east - the heartland of the ethnic Tamil minority.

The Tamil Tiger rebels dismissed the ballot as pointless, but did not declare an official boycott. Still, rebel soldiers in places openly intimidated people to keep them from voting.

A voter in the capital wonders if such an election could still be called free and fair.

"I'm not very sure of this polling - whether it will be fair, because I already hear they're not letting people vote in the East," she said.

The race pits Prime Minister Mahinda Rajapakse against opposition leader Ranil Wickremesinghe, who both say they want to end two decades of fighting by renewing peace talks with the rebels. Results are expected Friday.

The rebels want greater rights for Sri Lanka's ethnic Tamil minority. They agreed to a cease-fire in 2002 as part of a peace initiative put forward by Mr. Wickremesinghe when he was prime minister. But then the process stalled in 2003.

Mr. Wickremesinghe wants to restart peace talks at the point where they broke down, while Mr. Rajapakse says a whole new approach is needed.

Now, analysts say, the Tamil Tigers have given conflicting signals about whether they want the peace talks to go forward at all.

Some within the rebel group do appear to favor restarting talks. That would seem to favor Mr. Wickremesinghe's position, the creation of a federalist state giving the Tamils some autonomy in their parts of the country.

But Paikiasothy Saravanamuttu, of the Center for Policy Alternatives in Colombo, says other rebels favor a return to war. Mr. Rajapakse's election could prove useful to that faction of the LTTE, as the Tamil Tigers are officially known, because he campaigned on the promise to keep Sri Lanka a unitary state with a centralized government.

"The LTTE can turn around and say, 'How on earth can we sit around a table and talk about a unitary state? We thought we fought those battles a long time ago. So please, we can't talk to the Sri Lankan government as currently constituted, let us go our own way,'" said Mr. Rajapakse.

Election tensions were highest in the east of the country, near the town of Batticaloa, where six people were killed in election related violence on Wednesday. Overall, however, the election campaign has been more peaceful than ballots in the past.