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Tense peace reigns as Sri Lanka heads to polls

War-scarred Sri Lanka holds a peace-time presidential election this week after a bitter and highly personal campaign between the architects of the crushing of an almost four-decade-long insurgency.

President Mahinda Rajapakse will face his former army chief Sarath Fonseka on Tuesday in an intriguing contest between two men who were victorious allies on the battlefield last year but are now sworn enemies at the ballot box.

There are no reliable opinion polls in the country and political observers say the election is too close to call. Both camps believe they can claim a majority in the voting by the 14.08-million-strong electorate.

Rajapakse and Fonseka wiped out the Tamil Tiger rebels in May last year, ending their 37-year violent struggle for a Tamil homeland that left between 80,000 and 100,000 people dead, according to UN estimates.

"We are having the first presidential election without the Tigers calling the shots," said moderate Tamil politician, Dharmalingam Sithadthan. "There could be residual Tiger influence, but they no longer pose a threat."

There is tension in Colombo, however, after Fonseka warned Saturday of violence and vote-rigging amid claims from the opposition that the army might stage a coup in support of Rajapakse if the president loses.

In the run-up to the poll, police say at least four people have been killed and hundreds wounded in clashes between the factions. The house of an influential opposition figure was bombed on Friday.

Rajapakse, 64, a nationalist from the majority Sinhalese ethnic group, called Tuesday's vote after only four years of his six-year mandate, in a bid to harness a groundswell of support after the victory over the Tigers.

Fonseka, 59, a political novice whose popularity and influence also rose with the military victory, dashed Rajapakse's hopes of an easy ride back to power by deciding to run as an opposition candidate.

The retired four-star general accuses the president of sidelining him after the war and making false accusations that he was plotting a coup.

Both men remain dogged by allegations of war crimes and whoever eventually triumphs will have to contend with continuing pressure from the United Nations and Western nations to submit to a probe.

The United Nations says 7,000 Tamil civilians may have died in the final months of the fighting, though the government denies this. Independent journalists were not given access to the war zone.

Fonseka has said he is willing to face scrutiny for his role in the war but Rajapakse has vowed he will not allow any of his men to be tried.

In a curious twist, the minority Tamils, on whose behalf the Tigers waged their war of suicide bombings and assassinations, might swing the final result if the two candidates split the Sinhalese vote equally.

"Tamils could decide the next president," said political analyst Victor Ivan of the Ravaya weekly in Colombo.

Rights groups regularly accuse Rajapakse of stifling free speech, perverting the judiciary and encouraging corruption through his network of family members in key government positions.

He was also widely criticised by European countries, the US and the UN for holding 300,000 Tamil civilians in restricted camps until the end of last year.

"People in Sri Lanka are tired of the rule of the gun and long for the rule of law," Amnesty International's Yolanda Foster said.

"People have lost faith in the justice system and there has been a chilling effect on freedom of expression and association in the country."

The tone of the campaign has been bitter and highly personal throughout.

Fonseka called Rajapakse a "cardboard king" in his closing campaign speech on Saturday and his team released a photograph of the president's eldest son Namal with a Tamil rebel leader at a London nightclub.

The ruling party have portrayed Fonseka as a future dictator, with some even comparing him to Idi Amin, the notoriously brutal Ugandan military leader.

"There is no informed debate on any of the pressing issues," said political analyst Ivan. "What we are seeing is a personality clash and a slanging match."


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