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Sri Lanka presidential challenger says fears arrest

[Reuters, Wednesday, 27 January 2010 09:31 No Comment]

Sri Lanka’s top opposition candidate said troops had surrounded his hotel on Wednesday, after polling in Sri Lanka’s first post-war presidential election ended with the revelation that he was not a registered voter.

Incumbent President Mahinda Rajapaksa’s coalition said it would challenge General Sarath Fonseka’s eligibility in court, after the Election Commission said the fact he had not registered did not by itself affect his ability to stand for election.

"The government has taken the position that he was cheating the country that he had a vote," Central Bank Governor Ajith Nivard Cabraal told Reuters. "The legal people are looking at it, but it may be only of academic interest if he loses."

The latest intrigue built after a surprisingly close and bitter contest between two estranged allies who led Sri Lanka to victory over the Tamil Tiger separatists in May, after a 25-year civil war many had deemed unwinnable.

Election observers said between 70-80 percent of Sri Lanka’s 14 million registered voters turned out for Tuesday’s vote, which went ahead smoothly despite some minor blasts and other incidents in which no one was hurt.

Early counting from postal votes showed Rajapaksa winning most districts with 62.9 percent to 36.1 percent for Fonseka out of more than 320,000 votes. Other candidates had the remainder.


Early on Wednesday, Fonseka said soldiers had surrounded the Cinnamon Lakeside hotel in the capital, Colombo, where he was staying with former prime minister Ranil Wickremesinghe, the official opposition leader, and other opposition party heads.

"These people have surrounded the hotel with military and threatened my security people," Fonseka told Reuters by phone. "They had a plan to surround us and take us into custody and I don’t know if this is that phase of that particular operation."

A military spokesman had no immediate comment.

Fonseka in the final days of the campaign said the government had plans to either steal the vote or arrest him should he win. The government laughed it off, saying Rajapaksa would win the race cleanly and had no need to cheat.

Both camps on Wednesday said they were confident of victory.

More than 68,000 police were deployed during voting to keep order after a bloody campaign in which five people were killed and 800 violent incidents were recorded.

A senior military source and a top presidential aide said that Fonseka had been put under watch to ensure he did not attempt to organise a coup with his own loyalists in the army he commanded just eight months ago.

"The government doesn’t want him to take the first step toward a coup," the military officer said on condition of anonymity.

The general, 59, fell under suspicion of plotting a coup immediately after the war, which analysts say led Rajapaksa, 64, to promote him to a job with no control over troops.

Fonseka said the sidelining and accusations prompted him to retire and enter the race with the backing of a coalition of diverse opposition parties whose sole aim has been to beat Rajapaksa.

Rajapaksa called the poll two years early, hoping to capitalise on his post-war popularity. [ID:nSGE6000M8]

On Tuesday, Fonseka found himself in the embarrassing position of telling reporters he "may have voted" but didn’t want to say if he had "due to security reasons". He later admitted he was not on the voter rolls. [ID:nSGE6000MA]

Fonseka as army commander ran a relentless counterinsurgency campaign to crush the Tigers, while Rajapaksa deflected an international push for a ceasefire and criticism over civilian deaths that prompted calls for a war crimes probe.

Whoever wins will take the reins of a $40 billion economy which has enjoyed a partial peace dividend, and is on the path to recovery with big Chinese and Indian investments into infrastructure and plans to put $4 billion into development.

Foreign investors have put more than $1.5 billion into government securities, and the Colombo Stock Exchange .CSE, turned in one of 2009′s best returns at 125 percent.

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