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Wednesday, 5 December, 2001, 15:28 GMT
Violence mars Sri Lanka poll
Ballot boxes are carried under tight security to a polling station
There have been widespread complaints of malpractice
A curfew has been imposed in Sri Lanka after elections for a new parliament were marred by serious violence and reports of intimidation and malpractice.

At least 17 people have been killed in clashes during the vote - bringing to 56 the number of deaths during what is being described as the most violent campaign in recent history.

The curfew runs from 2130 local time (1530 GMT) until 0600 local time on Thursday (2400 GMT) and is being introduced as a precautionary measure, according to the government.

The main parties, the People's Alliance (PA) of Chandrika Kumaratunga and the United National Party (UNP) of Ranil Wickramasinghe, have accused each other of trying to intimidate voters.

Analysts say the election could lead to another weak coalition government, resulting in more political instability in a country embroiled in a costly civil war.

In a controversial move, the army closed several checkpoints, preventing people from areas controlled by Tamil Tiger rebels from crossing into government territory to vote.

Rerun demand

The independent Centre for Monitoring Election Violence (CMEV) has called for fresh polling in a number of areas.

Voting under the shadow of the gun
"We are convinced that today's election has been severely marred by widespread incidents of violence, rigging and other electoral malpractices," said Paikiasothy Saravanamuttu, head of the centre.

One international election monitor in Gampaha in central Sri Lanka said she witnessed supporters of the governing People's Alliance intimidating voters.

Elsewhere, a grenade was thrown inside a polling booth and monitors themselves have come under threat of attack.

For their part, the People's Alliance alleged the opposition had bombed three polling stations in Kandy district and blown up a bridge leading to a fourth.

There were reports from the central district of Kandy of voters being prevented from entering the polling stations in at least six places and it was alleged that ballot box stuffing had taken place in three others.

The army's actions in the north and the east prevented tens of thousands of minority Tamil voters from exercising their right to vote, many of whom, correspondents say, would have voted for the opposition.

The head of the European Union monitoring team, John Cushnahan, said that if these reports were proven to be accurate, he would be very seriously concerned about the implications.

Voters began arriving from early in the morning
"This decision will disenfranchise many thousands of voters, which I believe will have a significant impact on the outcome in these electoral districts," he said.

V Anandasangari of the Tamil United Liberation Front, a moderate party, lambasted the government saying it was "using the foulest of means to win the elections".

But the army said it acted to prevent violence by Tamil separatists of the Liberation Tigers of Tamil Eelam (LTTE).

"We have closed the checkpoints because of credible intelligence reports that the LTTE is trying to disrupt the election by infiltrating as voters," army spokesman Brigadier Sanath Karunaratne was quoted as saying by Reuters.

Snap poll

Voters are being asked to choose a new parliament barely a year after the last elections failed to produce a single winner.

The People's Alliance of President Chandrika Kumaratunga then formed a coalition which finally lost its majority.

It has been a campaign driven by personal rivalries and accusations of corruption.

Ranil Wickramasinghe
Wickramasinghe believes he has the best chance in years

The governing People's Alliance has alleged that its rivals in the UNP have formed a secret pact with Tamil Tiger rebels to sell off the north and east of the country, something the opposition has repeatedly denied.

The UNP has stressed it is the only party that can turn the country's ailing economy around, and it has won the support of much of the business community.

The opposition leader, Ranil Wickramasinghe, believes he has the best chance in years of becoming Sri Lanka's next prime minister, sensing a mood for change.

But few expect any one party to gain a simple majority.

All sides have expressed concerns about malpractice during the campaign.

Independent poll watchers say they have been more than 50 election-related killings and well over 2,000 incidents of violence during the campaign.

There have been complaints of misuse of state resources, biased media coverage and partisan action by the security forces.

The BBC's Frances Harrison
"The body bags have been counted before the ballots"
John Cushnahan, EU election observer
"The violence is coming from within the political process"

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See also:

01 Dec 01 | South Asia
Bombs injure 15 in Sri Lanka
23 Nov 01 | South Asia
Sri Lanka's Marxist leader ends exile
22 Nov 01 | South Asia
Sri Lanka poll violence 'doubles'
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