Election monitors accuse Sri Lanka military of harassment

COLOMBO (AFP) - Sri Lanka's military harassed and intimidated ethnic minority Tamil voters and candidates during the first ever local elections in the former warzone, foreign observers confirmed on Tuesday.

The 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.

The four-member monitoring team from the Commonwealth said turnout was high for the election at 68 per cent 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 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 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.

A group of South Asian election monitors said it was "dismayed" at the army's actions during the election, with residents complaining that plain clothed army intelligence officers were stationed outside polling booths.

On the eve of Saturday's poll, a Tamil candidate was forced to flee after dozens of armed men surrounded her home in Jaffna, the capital of the former northern warzone.

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

The South Asian monitors, who were invited by Sri Lanka's election commission for the poll, also noted that the commission should be given wider powers to prevent such abuses.

The military has denied it was involved in intimidation.

Despite the reports of harassment, the Tamil National Alliance won 30 out of the 38 seats to the council, raising hopes of some degree self-rule for the ethnic minority after decades of war.

President Rajapakse's United People's Freedom Alliance won just seven seats in a humiliating defeat, as his 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, and the army maintains a heavy presence throughout the northern region of about a million people.