President Rajapaksa had ecently warned of a plot to create religious and ethnic strife in Sri Lanka [AFP]

Police say three people, including an adviser to Sri Lanka's president, have been killed in election-related violence just outside of the capital Colombo.

Bharatha Lakshman Premachandra, a former politician, and two of his supporters were killed on Saturday in an intra-party shootout during local council elections.

Police sources said that the men were slain by a group led by ruling-party legislator Duminda Silva, who was also critically wounded in the gunbattle.

The sources also said that dozens of their supporters were wounded and that at least 10 automatic assault rifles had been used in the exchange of fire.

The two men had been bitter rivals, competing with each other for political as well as business influence in Colombo. Sri Lanka's system of preferential voting has often led to clashes between members of the same party.

Mid-term test

Despite voter intimidation by both groups, Sri Lankans went to the polls early on Saturday to elect local municipal councils, in a contest widely seen as a mid-term test for President Rajapaksa.

Rajapaksa's ruling coalition party is fielding candidates for the prestigious Colombo municipality as well as 22 others, marking the final phase of local elections which began in March.

Since government troops claimed victory in their near 30-year war against Tamil Tiger rebels, Rajapaksa has tightened his grip on power by securing a second presidential term and winning parliamentary polls last year.

His party has expressed confidence of securing victory in all the councils, while the fractured opposition has promised a comeback after a string of humiliating defeats.

Voters are set to elect 420 members from among 6,488 candidates, with results due to be announced on Sunday. The councils are responsible for maintaining utilities, but have no legislative powers.

However, political parties consider it important to secure the local bodies as a stepping stone for bigger national elections which are due by 2016.

Local elections began in March with smaller village councils going to the polls initially, while the bigger councils saw voting put off until the completion of the cricket World Cup the island co-hosted in March and April.

Source: Agencies