Ethnic Tamil voters in Sri Lanka's war-ravaged north have gone to the polls to form their first functioning provincial government, hoping it is the first step toward wider regional autonomy after decades of peaceful struggle and a bloody civil war.

Saturday's elections are expected to give them a limited say in their own affairs and seen by the United Nations and the world community as a crucial test of reconciliation between Tamils and the majority ethnic Sinhalese, who control the government and military. 

More than 700,000 voters are registered to elect 36 members to the provincial council. 

The Tamil National Alliance, considered a political proxy to the Tamil rebels during the conflict, is the favorite to win the election and has fielded a former Supreme Court Justice, CV Wigneswaran, as its chief candidate.

Discouraging voting

On the cusp of voting armed police guarded polling booths and while there was no sign of troops in and around Jaffna city, the capital of the province 400km north of Colombo, a different picture was seen elsewhere in remote areas according to TNA.

"In most rural areas, the military is asking voters not to cast their ballots," TNA candidate Dharmalingam Sithadthan told AFP news agency. "There is also a big smear campaign against the TNA."

He said he visited over 10 polling booths and noticed military intelligence officers asking voters not to vote for the "house", the symbol of the TNA . "They are doing this in a threatening manner," Sithadthan said. Such reports could not be immediately independently confirmed.

The election was promoted by the UN Human Rights Council as a step towards ethnic reconciliation in Sri Lanka after nearly four decades of fighting that killed up to 100,000 people, but the ballot is proving to be divisive as ever.

The elections come after ethnic divisions widened with the quarter-century civil war that ended in 2009, when government troops crushed the Tamil Tiger rebels who fought to create an independent state.

At least 80,000 people were killed and northern cities, including many in Jaffna, were reduced to rubble.

Source: Agencies