Opposition leader campaigns in Sri Lanka's rebel heartland ahead of presidential election

Leading opposition presidential candidate Ranil Wickremesinghe, a former prime minister, visited Sri Lanka's rebel heartland on Thursday to seek support from troops and ethnic Tamils in next month's presidential election.

Wickremesinghe arrived on an air force plane from Colombo, accompanied by several armed security guards. As the aircraft landed, military jeeps encircled the plane and later escorted him to the airport complex.

The Liberation Tigers of Tamil Eelam, which has been fighting the government for decades for an independent state for ethnic Tamils in the north, controls large swaths of the area around Jaffna. The town and the airport are under government control.

Wickremesinghe was to meet with government soldiers stationed in Jaffna to seek their nearly 45,000 postal votes. Although there are 13 candidates running in the Nov. 17 election, it is widely seen as a contest between Wickremesinghe and government candidate Prime Minister Mahinda Rajapakse, and as a referendum on peace efforts with the rebels.

As prime minister, Wickremesinghe signed a cease-fire agreement with the Tigers in 2002 that halted two decades of fighting. But some among Sri Lanka's 14 million Sinhalese majority and in the security forces see the truce as a sellout in which the guerrillas were given too many concessions.

Wickremesinghe was voted out of power in 2004 after President Chandrika Kumaratunga dissolved Parliament and called general elections.

The truce has become increasingly fragile since a split in the rebel movement last year, with almost daily attacks that have killed scores of people, including security forces, Tamil Tigers and civilians.

Wickremesinghe seeks to allay fears that if elected president he will not risk Sri Lanka's security in subsequent peace dealings with the rebels.

His meetings with the predominantly Sinhalese security forces will be in the Palaly high security zone near the airport, campaign officials said.

Sri Lanka's intelligence agency has advised Wickremesinghe not to travel out of the security zone, even though his officials said he was keen to meet with Tamil civilians in Jaffna town.

An independent poll released on Wednesday showed Wickremesinghe ahead of his rival on key issues such as the economy and the peace process. But the lead depends on support among Sri Lanka's 3.2 million Tamils, many of whom live in the north and the east.

Some 13.3 million people out of a population of 19 million are registered to vote in Sri Lanka.

The Tigers began fighting in 1983 to carve out a separate homeland for minority ethnic Tamils who have long faced discrimination by the Sinhalese majority. Nearly 65,000 people were killed before the truce, AP reported. V.A.

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