COLOMBO, Jan 26 – Pre-dawn bomb blasts in Sri Lanka\’s Tamil heartland escalated tensions as the country went to the polls on Tuesday in the first presidential election since the end of its 37-year ethnic conflict.
The bomb attacks in the northern peninsula of Jaffna were a violent start to an already bitter contest between President Mahinda Rajapakse and his former army chief Sarath Fonseka that threatens more instability in the island nation.
"We have a complaint that two bombs were thrown at the home of Subramaniam Sharma, an organiser for the (ruling) Sri Lanka Freedom Party," the Centre for Monitoring Election Violence (CMEV) spokesman D. M. Dissanayake said.
It was not immediately clear who carried out the attack, he said.
Last May, Rajapakse and Fonseka wiped out Sri Lanka\’s Tamil Tiger rebels, who had fought for a Tamil homeland since 1972, in a military campaign since dogged by allegations of war crimes.
But from close allies on the battlefield they have turned into irreconcilable enemies after Fonseka, a 59-year-old political novice, decided to challenge his former boss at the ballot box on an anti-corruption platform.
here are no reliable opinion polls in the country and political observers say the election is too close to call between the men, who are the only contenders in a field of 22 with any realistic chance of winning.
"We will have a great victory," Rajapakse told reporters after voting in his southern home constituency of Mulkirigala at a school named after his late politician father.
"We must be ready to face the challenges of reaching new heights after this vote," he added.
In the acrimonious run-up to the election, the opposition and government have made claim and counter-claim about each other\’s malevolent intentions, raising tensions across the country and the prospect of a contested result.
Fonseka alleged the government intended to unleash violence to intimidate voters and was preparing a coup if it lost. He was accused in turn of working with a militia of army deserters who could disrupt the vote.
In Jaffna, residents reported hearing four explosions before dawn Tuesday, but the monitors could only immediately account for two of them.
At least four political activists were killed and nearly 1,000 poll-related violent incidents were reported to police before the election. The house of a key opposition fundraiser was bombed last Friday in Colombo.
The opposition has said it will not accept a result if the 68,000 police and 12,000 soldiers on duty fail to prevent violence.
In Vavuniya, a northern Tamil area, voters made their way to polling booths after they opened at 7:00 am local time (0130 GMT), though turnout was low and an international monitor at the scene said the blasts might be a factor.
"Many (voters) we spoke to had heard about the morning blasts in Jaffna," said Bhupendra Prasad Poudyat from Nepal, one of 56 international monitors in Sri Lanka.
"They were concerned that violence will flare here. Maybe turnout was low in the morning because of the news."
The first results are expected to emerge late on Tuesday after polls shut at 4:00 pm, with a final outcome anticipated around midday on Wednesday, which has been declared a public holiday.
Fonseka has hardened his rhetoric in recent days, pointing to alleged troop movements, plans to disrupt the media and instructions to the police as evidence that the government will use the army to stay in power if necessary.
"These are the indications of a military coup," he told reporters on Monday in his last pre-poll press conference surrounded by his technicolour coalition of Marxists, Tamils, Muslims and right-wingers.
Rajapakse, like Fonseka a nationalist from the majority Sinhalese ethnic group, has vowed to ensure the poll goes off peacefully and had called on voters to give him a second mandate to develop the country post-war.
His supporters are drawn by the mustachioed 64-year-old\’s charisma and populist approach and see him as the man who liberated the country from a fight with the Tigers that cost 80,000-100,000 lives, according to the UN.