Sri Lanka's minority Tamils began voting Saturday in an election they hope will give them a shot at self-rule after decades of ethnic bloodshed that claimed over 100,000 lives.
Tamils in the country's battle-scarred northern province are voting for the first time to elect a semi-autonomous council, in an election called amid international pressure on the Sinhalese-dominated government to share power with the main ethnic minority.
"Even though this is a local election, there is more interest in it locally and internationally," S. Arumainayaham, the top civil administrator in the provincial capital of Jaffna, told reporters at his office.
Printing press worker Anandan Kumaraswamy, 57, was among the first to vote at the Mankayarkarasi College polling station near Jaffna's landmark Nallur Hindu temple and was praying for change.
"I have never seen this type of interest in an election here. I hope it will bring change," he said after casting a ballot to elect the Northern Provincial council which was established 26 years ago, but did not go to the polls till Saturday.
Retired Supreme Court judge K. Wigneswaran, who is expected to be elected the region's chief minister, said he wants to work with Colombo on pushing his Tamil National Alliance (TNA) manifesto, which calls for "self-government" for Tamils.
Wigneswaran's priorities are payment of war reparations, securing an army pull-out from the former zone, and taking back land the military still occupies four years after defeating Tamil Tiger rebels who fought for outright independence.
"I will try to work with the (Colombo) government," Wigneswaran told AFP in an interview in Jaffna.
But, he said, he will take his case to the international community if Colombo fails to cooperate.
Armed police guarded polling booths and there was no sign of troops in and around Jaffna city, the capital of the province 400 kilometres (250 miles) north of Colombo, but the TNA said the picture was different elsewhere in remote areas.
"In most rural areas, the military is asking voters not to cast their ballots," TNA candidate Dharmalingam Sithadthan told AFP. "There is also a big smear campaign against the TNA."
He said he visited over 10 polling booths and noticed military intelligence officers asking voters not to vote for the "house", the symbol of the TNA . "They are doing this in a threatening manner," Sithadthan said. Such reports could not be immediately independently confirmed.
Local journalists said a fake newspaper in the name of a pro-TNA daily was being distributed Saturday claiming that the TNA had withdrawn from the race and a key candidate had defected to the government side.
The election was promoted by the UN Human Rights Council as a step towards ethnic reconciliation in Sri Lanka after nearly four decades of fighting that killed up to 100,000 people, but the ballot is proving to be divisive as ever.
President Mahinda Rajapakse, who campaigned in Jaffna last week for his candidates, accused the TNA -- a coalition of several Tamil groups, including ex-militants -- of raising expectations of a separate state.
"The TNA is misleading the people by promising self-government and independence," he told a rally of his United People's Freedom Alliance.
Wigneswaran hit back Friday, saying Rajapakse was maintaining an "occupation army" to keep Tamils under "constant surveillance".
"This is an occupation army. They are here for a political purpose and not for security reasons," he said. "They must go."
He complained to election authorities that troops visited the home of his sister at Aanakottai, outside Jaffna, and asked her not to vote for the TNA.
Among the TNA candidates is civil servant Anandi Saseedaran, 42, whose husband, a senior Tiger political wing cadre, had disappeared after giving himself up to the military four years ago.
While thousands are still missing across the country, the military says over 12,000 Tiger cadres who surrendered were "rehabilitated" and re-integrated in society.
Some 906 candidates are contesting the 36 seats up for grabs in the Northern council. Two more seats are allocated to the party with the largest amount of votes, under a system of proportional representation.
Two other provincial councils in the largely Sinhalese North West and Central also went to the polls Saturday with President Rajapakse's party expected to win both.
Rajapakse has won almost every election since he led the campaign that crushed Tamil Tigers in 2009.
However, the spectacular military success has also triggered international calls to probe allegations that his troops killed up to 40,000 Tamil civilians in the final months of fighting.