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Intimidation in Northeast

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Members of Sri Lanka’s security forces and Army-backed paramilitaries, along with underworld thugs, were this week intimidating voters in the North and east, paving the way for fraud in favour of Premier Mahinda Rajapakse during Thursday’s Presidential poll, press reports and opposition politicians said this week.

Two of Sri Lanka’s most prominent Army-backed Tamil paramilitary groups have endorsed Mr. Rajapakse, the Sinhala nationalists’ candidate of choice, in Thursday’s election.

The Eelam People’s Democratic Party (EPDP) has been spearheading Mr. Rajapakse’s campaign in the Jaffna peninsula for several weeks now. And this week, Karuna, a renegade Tamil Tiger commander who defected to the military in April 2004, this week also endorsed the Premier, whose campaign is built on a ultra Sinhala nationalist and anti-LTTE platform.

“Mahinda Rajapakse has said he will review the ceasefire agreement with the LTTE. This is an important issue for us. He has also said he will commence talks with all parties to find a solution to the ethnic problem. This too is important for us”, Karuna was quoted by the Daily Mirror as saying.

The EPDP last month urged all Tamil speakers to vote for the Premier - whose campaigning kicked off with electoral pacts with hardline Sinhala parties ruling out power-sharing to resolve the island’s ethnic conflict.

The main opposition United National Party (UNP), whose candidate, Ranil Wickremesinghe, is Rajapakse’s main challenger in the election to replace outgoing President Chandrika Kumaratunga, this week warned of efforts to subvert the polls in Jaffna, where the EPDP is active under the aegis of the military.

“We have documents and other evidence to prove government’s attempt to disrupt the poll in the Jaffna district. Government leaders have planned to send about three hundred army deserters to Jaffna by private commercial flights,” UNP official Sarath Munasinghe told reporters.

“Some senior officials of the three armed forces are also involved in the sabotage attempt,” Mr. Munasinghe, a former spokesman for the Sri Lanka Army (SLA), also said.

Sri Lanka’s Elections Commissioner Dayananda Dissanayake said the actual number of voters in the northern Jaffna peninsula are much less than the registered number of 700,000.

“Only about 250,000 people had voted in previous elections,” Dissanayake said responding to news reports that a large number of poll cards are yet to be delivered.

Dissanayake said the poll cards were not mandatory to vote. If a voter’s name appears in the register he could vote after proving his identity.

Meanwhile, press reports said members of the ruling United People’s Freedom Alliance (UPFA) were intimidating voters in Sri Lanka’s eastern province.

Persons dressed in uniforms of the Special Task Force (STF) were also involved in the intimidation in military controlled Akkaraipattu and Pottuvil, the Daily Mirror newspaper reported Tuesday.

The STF is an elite counter-insurgency unit of the Sri Lankan police which works closely with Tamil paramilitaries and Army commandos in the ongoing shadow war against the LTTE.

The Daily Mirror quoted foreign election observers in the area as saying “systematic intimidation” was being carried out by government ministers using state vehicles and persons attired in STF-style uniforms.

“These uniformed persons, the police and private supporters were going door to door warning people to stay at home on election day,” the Daily Mirror also said, quoting an election observer.

“Akkaraipattu and Pottuvil are areas heavily in favour of the UNP candidate. So this is an attempt by government politicians in the area to try and make sure the people refrain from casting their ballot,” the observer told the paper.

“The use of state vehicles, with visible number plates is good indication that this is clearly government sponsored intimidation”, he added.

A tense atmosphere prevailed in the Ampara district as several dozen thugs allegedly hired by local UPFA strongmen hung around areas where the Sri Lanka Muslim Congress (SLMC) has its main support in the district, the Daily Mirror also said.

“The intimidating presence of these underworld figures especially in Kalmunai and Samanthurai electorates has given rise to fears that the government is bent on creating mayhem on election day,” Mr. Rauf Hakeem, leader of the SLMC, which is backing Mr. Wickremesinghe, said.

Sri Lankan security forces have stepped up patrolling and erected new checkpoints in several parts of the island, though pre-election unrest has been minimal.

“We have intensified security, mostly in urban areas,” police spokesman Rienzie Perera told Reuters. “But the violence is very much less (than during previous elections).”

In the northern Vavuniya district, Sri Lankan security forces have stepped up the intensity of their checks on travellers, sparking anxiety amongst local residents, the Liberation Tigers said this weekend.

The European Union’s chief election observer said Saturday that a second vote should be held if serious irregularities occur.

“It would be our view that re-polling should be held if there was serious electoral malpractice.” John Cushnahan told The Associated Press on the weeked.

He criticized Sri Lankan election officials for not re-polling in the wake of accusation of irregularities in the April 2004 polls. The Election Commissioner, has rejected the demand, saying it would not have significantly affected the outcome of the results, with more than a dozen parties contesting.

Sri Lankan media reports suggest that the contest will be close - leaving tight enough margins for vote fraud to make a difference. Sri Lanka has 13.3 million eligible voters.

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