Sri Lanka steps up security for final vote rallies

COLOMBO (AFP) – Police stepped up security across Sri Lanka yesterday over fears of violence on the final day of campaigning for the fiercely contested presidential election, officials said.

Elite police commandos reinforced police as the two frontrunners in Saturday’s vote Sajith Premadasa and Gotabhaya Rajapaksa held rival rallies in and around Colombo. “There are reports of possible violence,” a senior police official told AFP. “Additional strength has been deployed in vulnerable areas. Sniffer dogs and explosive detectors will also be used at final rallies.”

Premadasa, 52, is the son of assassinated president Ranasinghe Premadasa who was targetted by a suicide bomber during a May Day rally in Colombo in 1993.

Rajapaksa, brother of former strongman president Mahinda Rajapaksa, narrowly escaped a suicide bomb attack in 2006 blamed on Tamil Tiger separatist rebels.

While ethnic tensions have eased, this year the country was rocked by coordinated extremist bombings on Easter Sunday that killed at least 269 people.

During the election campaign, there were no further such attacks but the independent Election Commission said there were nearly 30 incidents of violence involving members of rival parties. Private poll monitor, the People’s Action for Free and Fair Elections (PAFFREL) said it was peaceful compared to the 2015 election when there were more bomb attacks and shootings.

However, PAFFREL Chief Rohana Hettiarachchi told AFP there were more incidents of hate speech, disinformation and intimidation on social media as well as radio and television.

“We noticed a trend of using social media to issue threats against political opponents,” Hettiarachchi said.

Campaigning should stop at midnight Wednesday (1830 GMT) allowing a two-day cooling-off period before Saturday’s ballot, with results expected on Sunday.