COLOMBO, Nov 17: Sri Lankans voted Thursday in presidential elections seen as a close race between the prime minister and the opposition leader but minority Tamils who could tip the balance largely shunned the vote,report agencies.
Analysts said a low Tamil turnout could favour Prime Minister Mahinda Rajapakse over opposition leader Ranil Wickremesinghe. Poll officials said Tamils were by and large boycotting the vote.
Election authorities sent buses to territory held by the rebel Liberation Tigers of Tamil Eelam (LTTE) to transport voters to polling booths in government-held areas, but there were few takers.
However there were still several hours to go before polls closed at 1000 GMT.
Prime Minister Rajapakse has vowed a hardline approach to the Tigers if elected while Wickremesinghe wants to revive the peace talks and seal a deal.
With the majority Sinhalese community split down the middle between the two main candidates, analysts say the Tamils, who usually vote as one bloc, could be crucial.
The future of the island's faltering peace process, as well as Sri Lanka's deteriorating economy after decades of war and last year's tsunami, have emerged as the main issues in the election.
The LTTE, which has led a decades-old campaign for a separate state, wields considerable influence over Tamils living in territory it controls as well as in neighbouring areas.
A truce was struck in 2002 but violence has continued to plague the island. More than 60,000 people have died in the ethnic conflict.
In northern Jaffna peninsula, where the Tigers maintained their de facto separate state till they were driven out in December 1995, only about 500 voted out of some 701,938 eligible voters.
However, in the rest of the country there was brisk polling and election officials said total turnout in the first five hours of the nine-hour voting period was over 55 percent.
Some 13.3 million people are eligible to vote for a candidate from among 13. But only Rajapakse and Wickremesinghe are the main contenders to replace outgoing President Chandrika Kumaratunga, who lost a court bid to remain in office.
Security was tight after at least seven people were killed overnight before the election in the troubled eastern province. Officials said a spate of bomb attacks wounded five soldiers and a constable.
The market-friendly opposition leader went into election day with a slight lead in the polls over the left-wing Rajapakse, but most analysts insisted the race was too close to call.
Local media reported the Tamils were leaning toward Wickremesinghe, which spurred the Colombo Stock Exchange to a record high Wednesday with prices rising 5.5 percent.
However the market shed 1.6 percent Thursday following reports the minority Tamils were shunning the vote, traders said.
Rajapakse, who turned 60 Friday, voted in the southern village of Weeraketiya and denied accusations he wants to take the country back to war.
The LTTE have labelled the movie star-turned-premier the "war candidate" after he called for a full review of a Norwegian-backed peace process.
Wickremesinghe, 56, who voted in Colombo, listed the quest for peace as topping his agenda if he wins.
Meanwhile: Two suspected Tamil Tiger rebels were killed and 17 people were wounded in separate grenade attacks and a bomb explosion in Sri Lanka's northeast as the country voted to elect a new president, police said.
Two men believed to be members of the rebel Liberation Tigers of Tamil Eelam (LTTE) were killed when a bomb ripped through a house in Pandirippu in the northeastern district of Batticaloa, police said.
Police said said seven others in the house were wounded and they suspected that the bomb may have gone off prematurely.
The blast came as unidentified attackers lobbed grenades at polling booths in the same region during voting Thursday.
One grenade ripped through a booth at Chenkaladi, also in the Batticaloa district, leaving two women and five men wounded, police said.
Another three people were wounded in a grenade attack outside another polling station in the same district, which witnessed heavy fighting between troops and Tamil Tigers before a truce in 2002.
Seven people were killed in the eastern province on the eve of the election despite a high state of alert by police and troops, local officials said.
However the rest of the country was largely peaceful, police said.
More than 60,000 people were killed in the island's embattled northern and eastern regions between 1972 and 2002 when the truce went into effect.
Despite the truce, over 190 people were killed in the troubled areas this year alone according to the Scandinavian truce monitoring team.
Election officials said turnout in the Tamil-dominated northern and eastern provinces was low amid an apparent virtual boycott of the vote.
Meanwhile: Voting in Sri Lanka's presidential elections ended after nine hours Thursday amid sporadic violence and a virtual boycott by minority Tamils, officials said.