COLOMBO: Sri Lanka’s president today took his re-election campaign to the Tamil heartland of Jaffna for his first visit to the peninsula since troops crushed separatist Tamil Tiger rebels in May.
Mahinda Rajapakse vowed to step up reconstruction efforts in the former war zone and promised speedy re-settlement of tens of thousands of Tamil civilians displaced by last year’s bloody offensive against the rebels.
“The president moved about freely and spoke with the civilians,” his spokesman Chandrapala Liyanage said. “He also met with Hindu and Catholic leaders who thanked him for removing travel restrictions to Jaffna.” Rajapakse’s visit follows a similar campaign trip to Jaffna by his main rival, former army chief Sarath Fonseka, ahead of the election on January 26. The minority Tamils, who constitute 12.5 per cent of the country’s 20 million population, could be decisive if the majority Sinhalese vote is split.
Both Rajapakse and Fonseka, who was the main military architect of the Tigers’ defeat, are members of the Sinhalese majority and both look on the community as their vote base.
Fonseka’s supporters said new government concessions to the Tamils were no more than an “election gimmick”.
The opposition People’s Liberation Front (JVP), which backs Fonseka, said Rajapakse had released 713 Tamil Tiger suspects on Saturday in a desperate bid for votes.
“There is no transparent basis for the release,” JVP spokesman Anura Kumara Dissanayake told reporters.