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Sri Lanka's Tamils flock to landmark regional poll

Voters in northern Sri Lanka have been to the polls in an election to form their first fully-functioning provincial government. Voter turnout was high, the contest coming after decades of struggle for self rule.

The first elections for a semi-autonomous provincial council closed on Saturday, with figures suggesting high voter participation.

More than 70 percent of voters in the Tamil majority Northern province cast their ballots amid tight security.

Around 700,000 people were eligible to vote, with some 2,000 local and foreign observers deployed.

Widely tipped to win was the Tamil National Alliance (TNA), which advocates self government for Tamils. The TNA, the political wing of the Tamil separatist movement, alleged that the military had tried to intimidate and put off voters as the polling took place.

The elections came four years after government forces defeated Tamil Tiger rebels, who were fighting for outright independence.

Although the council was created in 1987, it was rejected as inadequate by the Tamil Tigers and elections were never held.

Sri Lankan President Mahinda Rajapaksa, from the Sinhalese-dominated national government, was persuaded to allow the election after facing international pressure. The poll was promoted by the United Nations Human Rights Council as a step towards ethnic reconciliation.

Decades of opposition

TNA leader and retired supreme court judge Kanagasabapathy Wigneswaran is expected to elected as the council's chief minister. Wigneswaran has said he intends to work with the government in the capital, Columbo, and has listed the withdrawal of the army from land that it occupies as being among his priorities.

Meanwhile, Angajan Ramanathan, a businessman and the leading candidate for Rajapaksa's United People's Freedom Alliance (UPFA), has said close cooperation with the government would bring more benefits to the war-hit community.

Ethnic divisions widened during Sri Lanka's 1983-2009 civil war, which claimed around 80,000 lives and reduced many cities in the north to rubble.

Tamils - a minority in the rest of the country - 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 non-violent protests for many years until the civil war broke out between government forces and armed Tamil groups.

rc/pfd (AFP, dpa, AP)