"Here you have democracy. There is serious development taking place. You have freedom of movement, but again, until the last six months, it was in the clutches of a major terrorist group,'' he said
 
Human rights groups say the government is irresponsibly rushing ahead with city and village council elections and believe violence and intimidation will taint the results.
 
Candidates have been unable to campaign due to fear of attack by rival parties, while armed groups have forced local officials to run as their candidates, rights groups say.
 
Dulani Kulasinghe, a researcher at the Colombo based Law and Society Trust rights group, said: "In such a situation, there is no possibility of free choice between candidates."
 
The government has sent 4,200 police officers into the area and each of the 285 polling stations will be protected by five officers.
 
Heavy battles
 
Meanwhile, the government says at least 56 Tamil Tiger rebels and four government troops were killed in heavy fighting across the embattled north over the weekend.
 
Helicopter gunships were deployed against rebel strongholds in the northwestern coastal district of Mannar on Saturday, the defence ministry said.
 
There was no immediate word from the Tigers, but Puthinam.com - a pro rebel website - said the Tigers had killed 22 government troops and wounded a further 72.
 
It did not give Tiger casualties.
 
So far this year, the defence ministry has reported that security forces have killed at least 1,957 rebels for the loss of 117 government soldiers.
 
The casuality figures given by the government and the Tigers cannot be independently confirmed as journalist and rights groups are barred from the frontline areas.
 
Government offensive
 
Since 1983, the Tamil Tigers have been fighting to establish an independent state in Sri Lanka's north and east for minority ethnic Tamils who were marginalised for decades by governments dominated by the Sinhalese majority.
 
A 2002 ceasefire halted most of the fighting, but it has flared again in the past two years. The government recently said its ambition was to erradicate the Tiger group by the end of the year.
 
The Tigers were forced out last July when the government launched a major offensive which it says was supported by thousands of former Tamil Tigers, know as the Karuna faction.
 
Residents say that armed groups demand protection money, abduct civilians, forcibly recruit child soldiers and commit murders without fear of arrest.