Tamil voters in Sri Lanka have voted in elections for a a provincial government. More than 700,000 voters were registered to elect 36 members to the council, which will not have much power.
Tamils had their first say in regional affairs on Saturday after years under rebel or military control. Nine hundred candidates stood in what the UN views as a crucial test of reconciliation between the Tamils and majority ethnic Sinhalese, who control the national government and the military.
The UN called the election an "important opportunity to foster political reconciliation."
Ethnic divisions widened during Sri Lanka's 1983-2009 civil war, which claimed 80,000 lives and reduced many cities in the north to rubble.
Tamils have demanded regional autonomy for Sri Lanka's north and east, where they hold a majority, since the country became independent from Britain in 1948.
The campaign took the form of nonviolent protests for many years until the civil war broke out between government forces and armed Tamil groups calling for full independence.
Meet the candidates
The Tamil National Alliance (TNA), a proxy to the rebels during the civil war, appeared set to win.
Though the government in Sri Jayawardenapura Kotte would still appoint a regional authority, chief TNA candidate C.V. Wigneswaran said his party would lobby for wider self-rule.
Wigneswaran, a former supreme court justice, says his priorities included payment of war reparations, securing an army pullout from the region, and taking back land the military still occupies four years after defeating Tamil Tiger rebels who fought for outright independence.
"I will try to work with the government," Wigneswaran told the news agency AFP. He said he would appeal to the international community if the government failed to cooperate.
Angajan Ramanathan, a businessman and the leading candidate for national President Mahinda Rajapaksa's United People's Freedom Alliance (UPFA), takes a different tack, saying close cooperation with the government would bring more benefits to the war-hit community.
"The TNA is misleading the people by promising self-government and independence," President Rajapaksa said last week at a rally for the UPFA.
'They must go'
Tamils had created the provincial council in 1987 as an alternative to separation. However, the Tigers - the strongest of the rebel groups, and eventually the de facto government across much of the north and east - rejected it as inadequate.
The military defeat of the Tigers brings Tamils back to where they had started 60 years earlier.
"This is an occupation army," Wigneswaran said at a campaign event on Friday. "They are here for a political purpose and not for security reasons. They must go."
Two other provincial councils in the largely ethnic Sinhalese north west and central regions also went to the polls Saturday, with Rajapakse's party expected to win both.
The president's party has won almost every election since the campaign that crushed the Tamil Tiger rebels in 2009.
However, the military success has also triggered international calls to probe allegations that Rajapakse's troops killed up to 40,000 Tamil civilians in the final months of fighting.
mkg/ipj (AFP, dpa, AP)