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Sri Lanka Prepares for Elections with Hopes for Peace - 2004-04-01

As Sri Lankans prepare to go to the polls Friday for parliamentary elections, observers are expressing hope that the ballot will revive the peace process between the government and the Tamil Tiger guerrilla group.

Officials say more than 60,000 security personnel have been deployed in provinces where tensions are running high ahead of Friday's parliamentary election.

Of particular concern is Sri Lanka's eastern region, where the Tamil Tigers have split in two and their commanders are warning they could begin fighting each other.

Election monitors say at least four people have been killed in campaign-related violence since February, when President Chandrika Kumaratunga called for early elections.

Analysts say the decision to call the vote three years sooner than necessary is the president's attempt to break a long running power struggle with her rival, Prime Minister Ranil Wickremesinghe, who is from a different party.

The two leaders disagree on the direction of Sri Lanka's peace process, with Ms. Kumaratunga criticizing Mr. Wickremesinghe for what she charges is a too lenient approach to the rebels.

Observers say the election results could be very close or could even result in a hung parliament. No matter what, observers hope for a resumption of peace talks.

John Cushnahan heads the European Union election monitoring team in Sri Lanka, which has 70 EU personnel in place to observe the poll.

"? whatever political formula emerges, whatever government takes power, that they would continue the peace process, because it's one of the only positive spots in the world at the moment where conflict resolution? is making some measure of progress, albeit with a measure of problems," he said.

The Tamil Tigers and government have been observing a ceasefire since February 2002, but negotiations have stalled for a year.

As part of the process, the guerrillas agreed to give up demands for a separate state for the country's ethnic Tamil minority. More than 60,000 people have died in the conflict.