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Thursday, January 29, 1998 Published at 13:02 GMT


Tight security for poll in Sri Lanka's Jaffna peninsula
image: [ Soldiers on bicycles patrol an area of Jaffna ]
Soldiers on bicycles patrol an area of Jaffna

Voting is underway in local elections in the Tamil-dominated Jaffna peninsula in Sri Lanka - the first such poll since 1983.

Polling booths were reported to be quiet amid fears of violence by separatist Tamil Tiger rebels who controlled the province for many years until driven into the jungles by the Sri Lankan army in 1995.

A BBC correspondent in Jaffna says there are just a few cyclists out on the normally bustling streets. The bus station is empty and most of the shops are locked and barred.

Five Tamil parties are contesting the elections. Most of them are former militant groups and all support the government.

They do not back the Tigers' unyielding demand for a separate Tamil state in the North and East of the island.

Security worries

In the worst incident of pre-election violence, eight members of one party were killed in an ambush blamed on the Tamil Tigers.

But the most-established party, the Tamil United Liberation Front (TULF), says it is fielding candidates despite apprehensiveness about their safety.

There have also been numerous reports of intimidation and theft of voting cards.

The United National Party, whose constituency has been chiefly the Sinhalese majority, is not contesting a single seat in Jaffna.

The governing People's Alliance of President Chandrika Kumaratunga said it did not wish to stand against Tamil parties which were supporting it in parliament.

The Tigers' fearsome reputation

The Tigers are still an extremely potent force, as last weekend's bomb blast in Kandy proved, and it is doubtful that any permanent peace can be achieved without their co-operation.

They are perhaps the most enduring and feared guerrilla group in the world.

[ image: Rajiv Gandhi: Tamil Tigers were blamed for his death]
Rajiv Gandhi: Tamil Tigers were blamed for his death
As well as killing Tamil opponents without compunction and massacring Sinhalese in village raids and bomb attacks, they are held responsible for the assassination of a Sri Lankan president, Ranasinghe Premadasa, numerous cabinet ministers and an Indian prime minister who dared to cross them, Rajiv Gandhi.

The government hopes a local leadership will emerge from Thursday's elections able to take over tasks administered by the military and to win over hearts and minds still committed to the Tigers.

Any direct contact with the Tigers has been ruled out after the Kandy attack prompted the government to finally outlaw the group this week and snuff out any chance of further peace talks.

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