By Ranga Sirilal and C. Bryson Hull
COLOMBO, Jan 12 (Reuters) - Gunmen shot at a bus carrying opposition supporters in President Mahinda Rajapaksa' home district on Tuesday, killing one person in the runup to the presidential elections, election monitors said.
Already, there have been a record 251 violent incidents related to the Jan. 26 election, in which Rajapaksa is facing challenger General Sarath Fonseka, who led the army to victory over Tamil Tiger rebels in May.
"The first killing was reported from Tangalle," said Keerthi Thennakoon, spokesman for the independent Campaign for Free and Fair Elections (CaFFE). Tangalle is in Rajapaksa's Hambantota district.
A Fonseka spokesman, Asanka Magedera, said a gunman on a passing motorcycle had fired on the bus carrying Fonseka's supporters, killing a woman. Police confirmed the shooting but had no details on casualties.
A second election monitoring group, People's Action for Free and Fair Elections, confirmed the death and said seven other people were wounded.
Fonseka and Rajapaksa, who stood side-by-side after defeating the Tamil Tiger rebels in May, are now bitter rivals and the general has garnered the backing of diverse political parties whose sole common goal is beating the president.
Meanwhile, Rajapaksa said on Tuesday his government has earmarked $4 billion to rebuild the island nation's war-shattered north, part of a plan to eliminate lingering support for the Tigers.
Tamils are considered an important swing vote, and for the first time in nearly three decades will be able to vote without the Liberation Tigers of Tamil Eelam (LTTE) dictating their choice.
The $4 billion is a mix of government and donor funds, and will be spent in 2010 to rebuild railroads, power generation and irrigation infrastructure, Rajapaksa said.
"We have already signed $3 billion within the next three years for eastern development," he said, referring to the areas the government took back from the Tigers in 2007.
The president has promised a revival of the Tamil heartland in Sri Lanka's north and east, which have been destroyed by the war as the LTTE fought to establish its own nation for Tamils.
But so far he has struggled to win strong Tamil political support, with hundreds of thousands who fled the end of the war still awaiting full resettlement from refugee camps roundly criticised as inadequate and too restrictive.
Last week, the former political proxy of the LTTE, the Tamil National Alliance, gave its unanimous support to Fonseka on the grounds it was the best way to thwart Rajapaksa's re-election.
Asked if there was any chance that LTTE supporters could regroup Rajapaksa said the group was defeated militarily, but acknowledged that Tamil concerns about marginalisation had to be met to eliminate any chance of renewed violence. "There are sympathisers, but that all depends on how the government takes care of the issue," Rajapaksa said. (Editing by Sugita Katyal)
- Reuters - Thomson Reuters Foundation
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