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Polls Open in Sri Lankan Presidential Race

Polls have opened across Sri Lanka for a presidential election that some see as a referendum over how the government should proceed in peace talks with the separatist Tamil Tiger guerrilla group. The conflict between the government and the rebels has claimed more than 60,000 lives over two decades.

Voting began early Thursday in an election that pits Prime Minister Mahinda Rajapakse, a hardliner toward the rebels, against Ranil Wickremesinghe, a proponent of a 2002 peace plan.

Analyst Paikiasothy Saravanamuttu, from the Center for Policy Alternatives, says it is likely to be a close contest.

"The conventional wisdom is they're running neck-and-neck," said Paikiasothy Saravanamuttu. "So they've got to bring the vote out in their strongholds."

Mr. Wickremesinghe favors restarting the peace process with the Tamil Tigers, that could see Sri Lanka become a federalist state. That effort has been stalled since 2003. Mr. Rajapakse says a new approach toward peace is needed altogether.

For nearly 20 years, the majority Sinhalese government has fought the rebels, who want greater rights for the country's ethnic Tamil minority. More than 60,000 people have died in the conflict.

Election results are expected Friday.

Security is high across the country, especially in the east, where the government and rebels have been engaged in tit-for-tat killings that have given rise to concerns about a return to war.

There may also be a problem with voter turnout. Some little-known Tamil organizations have called for a boycott of the ballot, because they say it only legitimizes Sinhalese rule over the entire country. Analysts say it is likely those groups are simply a front for the rebels.

The election comes as Sri Lanka continues to struggle with rebuilding hundreds of towns and villages destroyed by last December's Indian Ocean tsunami. The disaster killed more than 30,000 people in the country.

But analysts say the tsunami, which only affected coastal areas, is not likely to be a major issue in the voting, compared with the peace plan and the country's overall weak economy.