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The BBC's Mike Wooldridge
"Polling officials say they hope to conduct a free and fair election"
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Election commissioner Dayananda Dissayanake
"I have taken measures to curb malpractices"
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Tuesday, 10 October, 2000, 07:31 GMT 08:31 UK
Shadow over Sri Lankan poll
Women voters
Queues formed within an hour of polls opening
Voting has got off to a brisk start in Sri Lanka's general election - but polling has been overshadowed by the death of the country's former prime minister Sirima Bandaranaike.

She was the world's first elected female prime minister and the mother of current President Chandrika Kumaratunga.

The news of her death at the age of 84 came as queues formed to vote in a poll widely seen as a referendum on the government's war strategy.

The election campaign has been marked by violence in which more than 60 people died.

Officials said there were queues outside voting stations within an hour of polls opening, as police strictly enforced regulations against last-minute canvassing by political parties.

President Chandrika Kumaratunga is hoping to win sufficient seats to pass a new constitution which would grant regional autonomy to the north, where the minority Tamils are dominant.

Election officials carry ballot-boxes
Voters are apprehensive of more violence
She wants to reduce support for Tamil Tiger rebels, who have been fighting a bitter 17-year-long war for independence.

There was heavy security throughout the country as voters went to the polls. Officials said about 40,000 security personnel would be guarding 10,000 polling booths, some of them in Tiger-controlled areas.

The BBC Sri Lanka correspondent says the president needs a convincing majority to carry on with her policy of waging war with the Tigers while seeking a constitutional settlement to the Tamil question.

More than 5,000 candidates are competing under the country's proportional representation system for 225 seats in parliament.

Results are expected soon after polls close on Tuesday afternoon.

Violence and fraud

Before voting started, election commissioner Dayananda Dissanayake warned of tough action against anyone attempting to rig the election or launch violent attacks against political opponents.

President Kumaratunga: Vote 'last chance for peace'
The independent Centre for Monitoring Election Violence (CMEV) said 61 people have been killed during five weeks of campaigning.

The centre blamed most casualties on the Tamil Tigers, who are not participating in the polls.

It said a record 1,726 cases of election-related violence had been reported in recent weeks.

As polling got underway, there were some complaints of malpractice from central Sri Lanka.

Gunmen were reported to have stormed a polling station in Nuwara Eliya, and party officials in Kandy district said there was widespread fraud there.

There were also concerns that people in Tiger-held areas would be reluctant to cross frontlines to vote in polling booths set up on the edge of government territory.

'Last chance'

Meanwhile, the two main parties in the campaign have once again been at loggerheads over two of the main election issues - the on-going war and the country's economic performance.

In the last hours of canvassing, President Kumaratunga reiterated her belief that the elections offered the country its last chance for peace.

She said the devolution proposals in the new constitution offered the best way of ending the country's long civil war.

The opposition says that the war has worsened during the People's Alliance Party's period in power and that the Sri Lankan economy has consistently under-performed.

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See also:

06 Oct 00 | South Asia
Sri Lankan leader's war pledge
05 Oct 00 | South Asia
Sri Lanka election rally blast
10 Jul 00 | South Asia
Olive branch to Tamil Tigers
09 Oct 00 | South Asia
Q&A: Sri Lanka's election
06 Oct 00 | South Asia
Sri Lanka's parties offer little choice
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