Sri Lankans Hold Tense Vote In Stronghold of Tamil Rebels

BATTICALOA, Sri Lanka -- Sri Lankans in the turbulent eastern city of Batticaloa cast ballots under heavy police guard Monday in a local election the government billed as a first step toward restoring order in a region long dominated by ethnic Tamil rebels.

Human rights groups and opposition politicians criticized the vote as tainted by a climate of violence and chaos. One of the parties expected to do well was an armed group of former rebels accused of a wave of killings and intimidation.

Residents said they were desperate for order to be restored.

"We don't expect the leaders to give us anything other than a chance to live in peace. If there is peace, we can work and take care of ourselves," said voter Sinnakutty Nagalingam, 36, a father of three who works as a mason. "With this situation, if we go out to work, there is no certainty that we will return home."

After a slow start, voting picked up in the afternoon as the violence that had been feared around polling stations failed to materialize.

A high turnout was crucial to justifying the government's decision to hold the vote, and there was an estimated 50 percent turnout, said Sritharan Sabanayagam of People's Action for Free and Fair Elections, an independent election monitoring group.

"I was scared to go to the polls at first. Then I saw a lot my friends go so I also went and voted," said a young restaurant manager who, in a sign of the fear rampant in the area, was afraid to give his name.

Hoping to prevent violence -- especially a rebel attack -- during the voting, the government flooded the area with police. Soldiers armed with assault rifles stood guard every few meters, checking vehicles on the near empty road leading into town, while other troops patrolled in armored personnel carriers.