Battle-scarred Tamils emerge as Sri Lankan kingmakers

January 11, 2010 (AFP) – For decades, Sri Lanka’s Tamil Tiger rebels fought for an independent ethnic homeland. In May they were defeated, but observers say Tamil voters could now be key to who becomes the next president. The two main candidates — incumbent Mahinda Rajapakse and former army chief Sarath Fonseka — both claim credit for crushing the Tigers and ending the island’s bloody ethnic conflict.

With the majority Sinhalese vote split between Rajapakse and Fonseka, a close race is expected and Sri Lanka’s 2.5 million battle-scarred Tamils could decide who wins the election on January 26.

Rajapakse and Fonseka have been on the campaign trail in the northern Tamil heartland of Jaffna — a turn of events unimaginable a year ago, when fighting raged between the Tigers and government troops.

In the first four months of 2009 the United Nations estimates that 7,000 mainly Tamil civilians were killed in the fighting, while between 80,000 and 100,000 people died in nearly 40 years of bloodshed.

At their peak 10 years ago, the Liberation Tigers of Tamil Eelam (LTTE) controlled one-third of Sri Lanka. Rajapakse launched his push for complete victory in 2006, and Fonseka led the troops to triumph eight month