Govt wins SLanka local elections

COLOMBO: Sri Lanka's ruling coalition and an ethnic Tamil party seen as a front for the defeated Tamil Tiger rebels have won the first postwar elections, held near the island's former battlefields.

According to state television, President Mahinda Rajapaksa's ruling coalition captured Jaffna town council, securing 13 of the 23 seats, while the pro-rebel Tamil National Alliance came second with eight seats in the election held Saturday.

The pro-rebel party won the Vavuniya town council, taking five of the 11 seats, while the ruling party won two seats.

The victory in Jaffna, the heartland of the country's ethnic minority Tamils and birthplace of militancy, will give the government a chance to claim it as an endorsement of its handling of ethnic relations, postwar rehabilitation and a rejection of separatism.

However, the results do not fully reflect public opinion in these war-battered regions, with more than 77 percent of the Jaffna voters staying away and only half of the Vavuniya voters casting ballots.

"We have undergone a lot of hardship but we have no solutions to our problems. So we are in no mood to vote. It's not going to make any difference," said G. Selvam, a 52-year-old Jaffna resident, explaining why he stayed away from the polls.

The two towns where ethnic Tamils are a majority lay just outside the shadow state the Tamil Tigers ran as a virtual dictatorship, and were frequently hit by violence during the quarter-century civil war.

The government recaptured the territory and routed the rebels on the battlefield in May, ending a conflict that killed between 80,000 and 100,000 people. The rebels were fighting for a separate state for minority Tamils after decades of marginalization by governments dominated by the Sinhalese majority.

Opposition parties accused the ruling coalition of restricting their campaigns, and the government barred most media from entering the towns to cover the first local elections held since 1998.

The government was also holding an election in Uva province to the south where ethnic Sinhalese are the majority. It looked likely to sweep the council, boosted by the recent capture of the rebels' new leader, Selvarasa Pathmanathan, who was trying to revive the separatist group.

Pathmanathan, the Liberation Tigers of Tamil Eelam's former chief weapons smuggler, was arrested in Southeast Asia and sent back to Sri Lanka, where he was being questioned, the government said Friday.

Sri Lankan defense spokesman Keheliya Rambukwella said the arrest showed "that we are capable of demolishing any future emergence of the LTTE."

Despite the rebels' defeat, both Jaffna and Vavuniya remain surrounded by government checkpoints and are accessible only with written permission from the Defense Ministry. Even residents can't leave without permission.

The main opposition United National Party said its lawmakers had to obtain permission to enter the cities for campaigning.

The government has refused permission for reporters to cover the elections — though ruling party dignitaries brought reporters on their campaign trips — saying journalists would have to rely on official statements for their coverage.

Paris-based Reporters Without Borders said the decision to bar the media "dashes any hope of a transparent election."

Nearly 300,000 Tamil civilians who fled the war zone during the final months of fighting also are being held in camps near the two cities.

Suresh Premachandran, a lawmaker from the TNA said the elections were just a government show.

"The Tamil people do not want an election at this time when hundreds of thousands of their relatives are held in government camps," he said.