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Sri Lanka votes in eighth presidential election

Sri Lanka votes in eighth presidential election

Colombo: Sri Lankans went to the polls on Saturday to elect the eighth President of the island nation which is yet to recover from the wounds of the nearly three-decade-long civil war and also the brutal Easter Sunday terror attack that took place just seven months ago.

In a statement, incumbent President Maithripala Sirisena urged the nearly 16 million voters to come out and cast their ballots without fear, Xinhua news agency reported.

"In a country where democracy has been strengthened it is a right and also a duty to vote for the person of their choice," Sirisena said, adding that maximum security had been provided across the country and thousands of police officers along with tri-forces had been deployed on ground.

Long queues were seen as voting began in 12,845 polling centres at 7 a.m. Polling is due to end at 5 p.m., reports the Daily Mirror newspaper.

Shortly after voting started, an unidentified group first pelted stones and then opened fire on two buses carrying voters in Mannar district.

A police spokesman told Xinhua that none of the passengers were injured but the buses had been damaged.

The group managed to flee before police personnel reached the incident spot, he said, adding that the voters were safely escorted to their polling stations.

No arrests have been made so far.

Saturday's contest was focused on the two front-runners -- Sajith Premadasa (52) from the ruling New Democratic Front (NDF) alliance and the Sri Lanka Podujana Peramuna's (SLPP) Gotabaya Rajapaksa (70) -- in a crowded field of a record 35 candidates.

This is the highest number of contenders since the first presidential election in 1982. In the 2015 election, only 18 candidates had contested.

Gotabaya is a retired soldier who took over Sri Lanka's defence portfolio during the period when his older brother, Mahinda Rajapaksa was President (2005-2015) and also when Sri Lanka ended its war in 2009 with the Liberation Tigers of Tamil Eelam (LTTE).

While the family's political future appeared to be fading after Mahinda's defeat in 2015, the April 21 Easter bombings on churches and luxury hotels in which 269 people were killed, lent wings to Gotabaya's candidacy.

While campaigning, he has presented himself as a nationalist and champion of the Sinhalese Buddhist majority, while also promising strong national security in the wake of the April attacks.

On the other hand, Sajith Premadasa, the son of Ranasinghe Premadasa who served as the President from 1989 until he was assassinated in May 1993 in Colombo in a suicide bombing by the LTTE, has pledged to fight for the Muslim and Tamil minorities.

The votes from the minority community had also played a major role in Sirisena's 2015 victory.

Anura Kumara Dissanayake, the leader of the Marxist party, Janatha Vimukthi Peramuna (JVP) which led to youth insurrections in 1971 and 1987-1988, has emerged as the third popular candidate, followed by former Army Commander Lt. Gen. Mahesh Senanayake who formed National People's Party (NPP) after he left the army last August.

If Premadasa wins the election, the incumbent cabinet and government would continue until the next general election to elect lawmakers. But if Gotabaya Rajapaksa is elected and proves 113 majority power in Parliament, there is a possibility of a change of government.

Election Commission officials have said that the results were expected by Saturday night.

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