Election monitors accuse Sri Lanka army of harassment

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Sri Lanka's military harassed and intimidated ethnic minority Tamils and attacked supporters of a Tamil candidate during a key election in the former war zone, foreign observers said Tuesday.

The main opposition Tamil party won a landslide victory in weekend elections for a regional council in the battle-scarred north, a poll hailed internationally as a step towards ethnic reconciliation after decades of ethnic war.

An election monitor said he had evidence of the military's involvement in an incident in which a Tamil candidate was forced to flee after a dozen armed men surrounded her home on the eve of the poll on Saturday.

Some of her supporters were hospitalised after being beaten up during the incident in Jaffna, 400 kilometres (250 miles) north of Colombo, in the heart of the former war zone, according to party officials.

"I am 101 percent sure the army was involved in that attack," N. Gopalaswami, a former chief election commissioner of India and head of a South Asian monitoring team, told AFP in Colombo.

Gopalaswami also said the military was directly involved in campaigning for candidates of the national ruling party, including distributing leaflets and discouraging Tamil voters in key areas from heading to polling booths.

The election, the first in the north since semi-autonomous councils were formed in 1987, was held amid international pressure for President Mahinda Rajapaksa's government to share power with Tamils four years after the end of the bloody separatist conflict.

The Tamil National Alliance won 30 out of the 38 seats to the council, raising hopes of some degree of self-rule for the ethnic minority after decades of war in the Sinhalese-majority country.

A separate four-member monitoring team from the Commonwealth said turnout was high for the election at 68 percent despite the military's efforts at intimidation during campaigning and on polling day.

"The role of the military in the electoral campaign was consistently described to the mission as a significant obstacle to a credible electoral process," the Commonwealth secretariat said in a statement.

"We learned that opposition candidates and their supporters, as well as voters at large, faced instances of intimidation and harassment, and that the freedom to hold campaign meetings and openly interact with the electorate was restricted," it said in a statement.

The statement comes as dozens of world leaders are set to attend a Commonwealth heads of government meeting in Colombo in November, but with a boycott from Canada over human rights concerns.

Military spokesman Ruwan Wanigasooriya denied the observers' claims, pointing to the high turnout.

"If the military were an obstacle, the people could not and would not have come in such large numbers and voted," Brigadier Wanigasooriya said.

The group of South Asian monitors, who were invited by Sri Lanka's election commission for the poll, said the commission should be given wider powers to prevent such abuses in future.

President Rajapakse's United People's Freedom Alliance won just seven seats at the election in a humiliating defeat, after he personally campaigned in the region. His ruling party has won almost every major election since the separatist war ended in 2009.

Tamil Tiger rebels were crushed by a Sri Lankan military onslaught in 2009, which remains dogged by war crimes allegations.

The army maintains a heavy presence throughout the northern region of about a million people.