COLOMBO, Sri Lanka // The Sri Lankan president Mahinda Rajapaksa won a resounding re-election victory today, beating back a challenge from his former army chief, who rejected the official results and said he feared arrest as troops surrounded his hotel. The capital was tense even as people hit the streets in celebration, setting off fireworks, waving Sri Lankan flags and holding up posters of a smiling Mr Rajapaksa. Policemen at intersections smiled and waved at the revellers.
The election commission declared Mr Rajapaksa the winner with 57.8 per cent of the vote to Sarath Fonseka's 40 per cent. The president now must rebuild the country after last year's successful offensive to destroy the Tamil Tiger separatists after 25 years of conflict. Mr Fonseka refused to accept the results, accusing Mr Rajapaksa of using the state media to attack him, misappropriating public funds for his campaign and preventing displaced minority Tamils - whose support the opposition candidate was counting on - from voting.
In a letter to the electoral commission, he said he would initiate legal proceedings to have the results annulled. As the returns came in, troops surrounded the Cinnamon Lake Hotel after about 400 people, including alleged army deserters, gathered inside with Mr Fonseka, the military spokesman Brig Udaya Nanayakkara said. The troops remained there throughout the day. "We don't know what's their motive, and as a protective measure we have deployed troops around the hotel, and people who go in and come out are being checked," Mr Nanayakkara said.
He said there were no plans to arrest Mr Fonseka. But, in a separate letter to the election commission, Mr Fonseka said the troops were preventing him from leaving. Three of his employees were arrested and he feared detention himself, he said. "I ask you to order the police and the relevant security authorities to ensure my safety and my freedom of movement," he wrote. Opposition politician Rauf Hakeem told reporters outside the hotel there were no deserters inside and Mano Ganesan, another opposition official, said the coalition had reached out to diplomats to secure international guarantees of Mr Fonseka's safety.
Some observers fear that a dispute over the results could lead to street protests and violence. Jehan Perera, a political analyst in Colombo, called the military presence at the hotel "absolutely unprecedented". Mr Fonseka remains popular with the troops he led to victory against the Tamil Tigers, and the government is worried that he might claim electoral fraud and then try to rally his former soldiers, Mr Perera said.
The race between two men considered war heroes by the Sinhalese majority was acrimonious from the start. A bitter falling out pushed Mr Fonseka to quit, join the opposition and challenge the president. He was hoping for strong support from ethnic Tamils, who bore the brunt of the government's final offensive against the rebels, but turnout among the minority was dismal. Mr Rajapaksa's powerful political machine - and his alleged use of state resources, especially state media in his campaign - apparently overwhelmed Fonseka's bid.
The opposition accused Rajapaksa of plotting to rig the vote and steal the election. Mr Fonseka himself was unable to vote yesterday because he was not registered. It was unclear if he had failed to register or if he tried and was left off the voter rolls. * AP