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Sri Lankan Tamil party wins landslide victory in provincial polls

Preliminary results from local elections in northern Sri Lanka give a landslide win to a Tamil party allied with former separatist rebels. The victory shows that the wish for Tamil autonomy remains strong in the region.

Sri Lankan election officials said on Sunday that the Tamil National Alliance (TNA) had won 30 seats in the 38-member provincial council in the northern region, which was the focus of a 26-year war between the government and separatist Tamil rebels.

The TNA, which was the former political arm of the Liberation Tigers of Tamil Eelam rebels, dealt a crushing blow to the United People's Freedom Alliance of President Mahinda Rajapaksa, which received just seven seats. A Muslim party won one.

The vote was the first provincial council election in the north in 25 years, and came partly as a result of international pressure on the national government to restore democracy after the war, which ended with the rebels' defeat in 2009.

The election result would seem to indicate that Tamils, who make up about 14 percent of Sri Lanka's population of 20 million, still aspire to autonomous rule.

However, the TNA has rejected accusations by the government that it will renew calls for a separatist state, vowing to support a federalist political structure.

"They must trust us. We are for an undivided Sri Lanka, where there is a certain amount of self-rule under the federal constitution," C.V. Wigneswaran, a former Supreme Court judge who is expected to become the provincial chief minister, told reporters.

Continued military occupation

Wigneswaran said many people in the north were however worried by the military's continued occupation of large parts of the region, and called for the withdrawal of troops.

"They must be put into barracks somewhere else," he said.

Election officials said they received a large number of complaints, including about intimidation, during the vote, but that turnout was around 68 percent.

The Sri Lankan government has been under international pressure to bring to justice those accused of war crimes committed at the end of the conflict, and to step up reconciliation efforts. In July, Rajapaksa ordered an inquiry into mass disappearances, mostly of Tamils, at the end of the war.

However, the government has rejected accusations of rights abuses.

tj/dr (Reuters, dpa)