Prime Minister Mahinda Rajapakse's office claimed Friday that he has won Sri Lanka's presidential election based on unofficial returns and appealed to supporters to celebrate peacefully. No formal announcement had been made by the election commission, which was still counting votes. Based on partial, unofficial returns from Thursday's balloting, Rajapakse, a hard-liner toward Tamil Tiger rebels, had received 4.65 million votes, or 50.36 percent of the total counted, against opposition leader Ranil Wickremesinghe's 4.47 million, or 48.38 percent.
"He has passed the 50 percent mark," said Basil Rajapakse, head of the prime minister's campaign and his brother. "We are confident he will be the president."
The Prime Minister's Office appealed to the Sri Lankan people "to behave peacefully and celebrate the victory without harming opponents." Counting is done manually and is slow.
Balloting was smooth Thursday in western and southern parts of the island nation and overall turnout was 75 percent, election officials said.
But in the north and east, territory of the feared Tamil Tiger rebels, grenade attacks, roadblocks and fear kept many Tamils from voting. Others heeded a boycott called by pro-rebel groups that complained neither of the main candidates would help them win a homeland in northeastern Sri Lanka.
The Tamils, whose plight is at the heart of a civil war that has lasted more than two decades, make up just under 20 percent of Sri Lanka's 19 million people but were potential kingmakers in the tightly contested election.
The race pitted hardline Rajapakse against dovish opposition leader Wickremesinghe, whose softer line on peace talks with the rebels won him wide support among Tamils, a largely Hindu minority.
The new president "will have to sort out the country's main ethnic problem," said D. Maulana, 35, who sells auto parts in Colombo. "As all of us know without that, nothing can go forward until it is over."
No polling stations were set up in Tiger strongholds because of security concerns, but the government set up special voting booths on the edge of insurgent territory to accommodate the more than 200,000 voters who live behind rebel lines.
But officials said roadblocks and intimidation kept most from making it out of rebel territory to vote.
Turnout was less than 1 percent in and around the northern Tamil city of Jaffna, the lowest ever in any of the Indian Ocean country's 22 districts.
Grenade blasts forced European Union observers to pull out of the eastern city of Batticaloa, the scene of frequent clashes between the Tigers and breakaway rebel factions. At least two people were killed in the attacks.
In the Batticaloa district, split between the rebels and government, turnout was 43 percent, down from around 70 percent in the last presidential vote, a drop officials attributed to the fact that few Tamils from rebel areas voted.
Perinban, a 57-year-old Tamil farmer from a rebel area near the eastern village of Vavunathivu, wanted to vote.
But on his way to the polling station he saw a roadblock of burning tires and palm fronds and said he knew exactly what it meant: "Burning tires are a signal that we should not go beyond this."
The Tigers took up arms in 1983 over discrimination against Tamils, most of whom are Hindu, by the predominantly Buddhist Sinhalese majority. Nearly 65,000 people have been killed in the conflict, reports the AP. I.L.