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Sri Lankan president triumphant, despite poll challenge

Sri Lanka's president said Thursday his re-election was a perfect response to those who had criticised his handling of the war against Tamil rebels, even as his defeated rival rejected the result.

Mahinda Rajapakse swept back into a second term after results from Tuesday's bitterly fought election gave him 57.9 percent of the popular vote, trouncing the challenge from his former army chief, Sarath Fonseka, who got 40.1 percent.

The 64-year-old president took a swipe at those "in Sri Lanka and abroad" who had condemned his handling of the final military offensive against Tamil Tiger rebels that ended the island's decades-old civil war in May.

"The overwhelming mandate given in this election has given the answer to these critics," he said in a statement.

"The people of Sri Lanka, democratically and very clearly, have shown that they are now free of threats, free of fear, free of terrorism -- and they have shown they support the measures which have freed them."

The European Union and the United States have led calls for an investigation into possible war crimes arising from the final stages of the fighting, when the UN says around 7,000 civilians were killed.

The Sri Lankan government and military have vehemently denied charges of indiscriminate heavy shelling of civilian areas, as well as extra-judicial killings.

The United States said it was withholding judgment on the election, which was followed by a day of high drama with Fonseka spending much of Wednesday holed up in a luxury hotel in central Colombo surrounded by armed troops.

"We're obviously aware that there have been claims of victory and counterclaims," State Department spokesman Philip Crowley told reporters, ruling out further comment for now.

UN chief Ban Ki-moon voiced relief that the presidential polls had been "relatively peaceful" despite some election-day bombings, and urged the opposing forces to abide by the official results.

"I truly hope that all sides will see the wisdom of acting with restraint and responsibility in the interest of the nation. This would bode well for future elections and national harmony," he said.

Sri Lanka increasingly distanced itself from the West as it came under fire for its human rights record. It has built ties with China and Iran and last year hosted Myanmar's reclusive military leader Than Shwe.

But speaking to reporters on Wednesday night in the glow of his election win, Rajapakse also sought to build some bridges with his Western critics.

"Most of our misunderstandings were due to the fighting. It is over now. I am on my second term and we can work together to address any outstanding issues," he said.

But a question mark remains over Rajapakse's victory given the stand taken by Fonseka, who said he feared for his life during the hotel standoff before slipping out late Wednesday to head for a safe house in the Sri Lankan capital.

"The victory has been taken away from us by election-rigging and the violation of electoral laws," the 59-year-old former military commander told reporters soon after the results were announced.

Fonseka said that he and the assorted coalition of opposition parties that backed him would challenge the election verdict, making their next step the filing of a petition at the Supreme Court.

But he also suggested he might have to flee abroad because the government had stripped him of his security, which he said was a deliberate ploy to leave him vulnerable to assassination by militants or government loyalists.

Rajapakse had called the election two years early, riding on his popularity after he and Fonseka eliminated the rebel Liberation Tigers of Tamil Eelam (LTTE), who had been fighting for an independent Tamil homeland since 1972.

Like Fonseka, Rajapakse is a member of Sri Lanka's dominant Sinhalese community. As an unabashed nationalist, the president is viewed with deep suspicion by minority Tamils.

But Rajapakse said: "I want to reach out to the Tamil people even if they did not vote for me this time.

"We can sit and talk with them. See what their problems are. We can work together."