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Gunmen attack Muslim voters as Sri Lanka votes for president

People stand in a line to cast their vote during the presidential election in Colombo, Sri Lanka November 16, 2019.
People stand in a line to cast their vote during the presidential election in Colombo, Sri Lanka November 16, 2019. REUTERS/Dinuka Liyanawatte

Muslim voters traveling by bus to polling stations in northern Sri Lanka were shot at, pelted with stones and blocked by burning tires hours before polls opened in presidential elections Saturday, in what a member of the nation's Elections Commission called a coordinated effort to disenfranchise the minority group.

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There were no reported injuries and police were investigating, said Manjula Gajanayake, spokesman for the Colombo-based Centre for Monitoring Election Violence.

Campaigning for Sri Lanka’s presidential election was dominated by worries over national security, which was pushed to the forefront after deadly suicide bomb attacks on Easter Sunday that killed 269 people. At the same time, there’s fear among both Tamils and Muslims about a return to power of front-runner Gotabaya Rajapaksa, a hard-line former defence official under his brother, the former President Mahinda Rajapaksa.

The Rajapaksa brothers are revered by Sri Lanka’s Sinhalese Buddhist majority for defeating the Tamil Tiger rebels in 2009 and ending the nation’s long-running civil war. But because of their heavy-handed rule during and after the war, some minorities fear their return.

Gotabaya Rajapaksa had been widely expected to triumph over the ruling party candidate, Housing Minister Sajith Premadasa. But as the election approached, the race became very close.

Nearly 16 million people, more than two-thirds of the nation's population, were eligible to vote and choose a new president from a record 35 candidates. President Maithripala Sirisena, who was elected in 2015, is not seeking reelection. Results are expected as early as Sunday.

A decade of peace following nearly 30 years of civil war was shattered by the Easter attacks earlier this year. Gotabaya Rajapaksa, 71, cast himself as the only candidate capable of protecting Sri Lankans from such attacks.

During the war, he is accused of persecuting critics and overseeing what were called “white van squads” that whisked away journalists, activists and Tamil civilians suspected of links to the Tamil Tigers. Some were tortured and released, while others simply disappeared. The Rajapaksa brothers are also accused of condoning rape and extrajudicial killings and deliberately targeting civilians and hospitals during the war.

Elections official: 'a concerted effort' to prevent Muslims from voting

The Muslims attacked on Saturday were part of a convoy organized by Premadasa’s supporters that was taking them back to vote in the northern district of Mannar. Many Muslims fled the area in 1982, when the Tamil insurgency began to grow, and others were evicted from the north in 1990.

The Elections Commission had encouraged them to register as voters in Mannar but had not arranged enough transportation to bring them from their homes in the northwestern district of Puttalam, Gajanayake said.

Shreen Saroor, an activist working with displaced Muslims, said the attack made them more determined to vote and they were using public transport and private vehicles to get to the polling stations in Mannar.

“There is a concerted effort to keep the Muslims away from the ballot box,” Ratnajeevan Hoole, a member of the Elections Commission, told The Associated Press.

It wasn’t immediately clear whether any of the attackers had been arrested.

Hoole said he had called for the arrest of a former top Tamil rebel commander in the east now in alliance with Rajapaksa for making inflammatory comments against Muslims in the run-up to the election, but his request was not heeded.

The ex-rebel commander, Vinayagamoorthy Muralitharan, broke away from the Tamil Tigers in 2004 and worked with the government to defeat the rebel group. His split helped the government end the 26-year war.

Hoole said that in videos posted on social media, Muralitharan - also known as Karuna Amman - had talked about the need to suppress the Muslim vote to undermine Muslims' growing influence in Sri Lanka's Eastern province.

Voting begins near Colombo 

At a Buddhist temple serving as a polling station in a suburb of Colombo heavily guarded by police, Rajapaksa arrived to cheering and clapping supporters, some watching from their balconies and rooftops.

He told The Associated Press that he was “very confident” of victory.

“People of Sri Lanka will get a better future under me, under my presidency,” he said.

Premadasa, the son of a former president who was assassinated in a Tamil Tiger suicide bombing, has gained support in recent weeks by promising to expand welfare programs and bringing disgruntled party stalwarts into the fold.

Because the Rajapaksas maintained emergency laws after the war ended, curtailing civil liberties, Premadasa and his supporters have warned that Sri Lankans could lose freedoms if the brothers return to power, a line of rhetoric that helped a coalition of political foes led by Sirisena defeat Mahinda Rajapaksa in 2015 elections.

Voters started trickling in early at a polling station guarded by armed police in Dehiwala, a suburb of the capital Colombo.

Sha Nawaz, a 72-year-old retired state employee, said he and his wife cast their ballots for Premadasa.

“The reason is we like him, young and we need a person like that in our country,” Nawaz said.

(FRANCE 24 with AP)

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