Sri Lanka steps up security for final vote rallies

Colombo (AFP) –


Police stepped up security across Sri Lanka on Wednesday over fears of violence on the final day of campaigning for the fiercely contested presidential election, officials said.

Elite police commandos reinforced police as the two front runners Sajith Premadasa and Gotabhaya Rajapakse held rival rallies at the end of a gruelling campaign.

"There are reports of possible violence," a senior police official told AFP. "Additional strength has been deployed in vulnerable areas. Sniffer dogs and explosive detectors will also be used at final rallies."

Housing minister Premadasa held meetings during the day and was to wrap up his campaign with a rally in the capital. Main opposition contender Rajapakse holds his final meeting on the outskirts of Colombo.

Premadasa, 52, is the son of assassinated president Ranasinghe Premadasa who was targeted by a suicide bomber during a May Day rally in Colombo in 1993.

Rajapakse, brother of former strongman president Mahinda Rajapakse, narrowly escaped a suicide bomb attack in 2006. It was blamed on Tamil Tiger rebels who were crushed in a brutal military campaign in 2009.

While ethnic tensions have eased, this year the country was rocked by coordinated suicide attacks on Easter Sunday that killed at least 269 people. Those attacks were blamed on a local jihadi group.

During the election campaign, there were no attacks blamed on Islamic extremists, but the independent Election Commission said there were nearly 30 incidents of violence involving members of rival parties.

Private poll monitor, the People's Action for Free and Fair Elections (PAFFREL) said the campaign was relatively peaceful compared to the 2015 election when there were more incidents of bomb attacks and shootings.

"We recorded 31 people being hospitalised after election-related violence, but it is still better than what we saw at the previous election," PAFFREL chief Rohana Hettiarachchi told AFP.

However, he said there were more incidents of hate speech, disinformation and intimidation on social media as well as radio and television.

"We noticed a trend of using social media to issue threats against political opponents," Hettiarachchi said.

Campaigning should stop at midnight Wednesday (1830 GMT) allowing a two-day colling period before Saturday ballot.

Some 16 million people over the age of 18 years are eligible to choose a winner from among 35 candidates.