Security tight as Sri Lanka’s east coast holds key polls

TRINCOMALEE, Sri Lanka, May 9, 2008 (AFP) – A heavy security blanket was thrown over eastern Sri Lanka ahead of Saturday’s local polls, seen as a key test for the hawkish government as it escalates the war against Tamil rebels. President Mahinda Rajapakse is hoping the east’s first provincial council elections in 20 years will deliver a show of public support despite concerns about the human and economic costs of the latest round of fighting.

The polls will be the largest to be held in the coastal regions of Ampara, Batticaloa and Trincomalee since the government dismantled Tamil guerrilla strongholds in the area after heavy fighting last year.

Since then, Colombo says it has been trying to win the “hearts and minds” of the east’s “liberated” Tamils — a strategy it wants to take to the rebel-held north.

Although the eastern province is described as being under full government control, Liberation Tigers of Tamil Eelam (LTTE) cells still operate.

The government pulled out of a tattered truce with the LTTE in January, leading to a spike in a war that has left tens of thousands dead since 1972.

Colombo has poured a record 1.5 billion dollars into the war effort this year, hitting people’s pockets at a time