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Former, Current Prime Ministers Expected to Face Off in Sri Lanka Election


In Sri Lanka, two of the country's leading politicians are among 13 candidates who have formally registered to contest next month's presidential elections. The election is expected to set the direction for a faltering peace process with the Tamil Tiger guerrillas.

Armed soldiers and anti-terrorist commandos patrolled the streets of Colombo Friday, as Prime Minister Mahinda Rajapakse and opposition leader Ranil Wickremesinghe filed their nominations for the November 17 presidential election.

They are among 13 candidates who registered to run in the election, but are considered to be the leading contenders.

Both candidates are pledging to settle a two-decade ethnic conflict in the country by seeking lasting peace with Tamil Tigers. The guerrillas want wide autonomy for Tamil-dominated areas in the north and the east.

But political analysts say the two frontrunners have sharply differing positions on the issue.

Opposition leader Mr. Wickremesinghe has vowed to revive peace talks with the rebels, which have been stalled for two years, and bring what he calls a "final political solution" to the ethnic conflict. Prime Minister Rajapakse on the other hand says he will review the basis of the peace process, if elected.

Rohan Edresinghe is a senior analyst at Colombo's independent Center for Policy Alternatives. He says Mr. Rajapakse is expected to take a tough stand with the Tamil guerrillas because he has forged election pacts with nationalist parties of Marxists and Buddhist monks. Both groups are strongly opposed to the rebel demand for self-rule in areas under their control.

"The present prime minister has signed some very controversial agreements with two Sinhala extremist parties, which may make it extremely difficult for him to pursue peace negotiations with the Tamil Tigers, so there is a lot of concern that if he is elected, it could cause tremendous problems with regard to the future of the peace process," said Rohan Edresinghe.

Both candidates are also promising to alleviate poverty to woo voters in an election that is expected to be closely fought.

The election comes as the country's three-year-old cease-fire is under strain, due to increasing violence that has claimed scores of lives in the north and the east. Both the military and the Tamil Tigers blame the killings on each other.

The violence has not spared the capital, Colombo. On Thursday, one person was wounded when a bomb in a parked van exploded outside the office of a newspaper owned by a political party that opposes the rebels. In August, the guerrillas were blamed for the assassination of the country's foreign minister, a charge they denied.

The rising violence has worried the international community, and prompted peace mediator Norway to urge the rebels to halt political killings and uphold the truce.

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