COLOMBO, Jan 12 (Reuters) - Sri Lanka has earmarked $4 billion to rebuild the island nation's war-shattered north, part of a plan to eliminate lingering support for the defeated Tamil Tiger separatists, President Mahinda Rajapaksa said on Tuesday.
Sri Lanka's Tamils are considered an important swing vote in the Jan. 26 presidential election, at which Rajapaksa is seeking a second term and is facing a stiffer-than-expected challenge from former army commander General Sarath Fonseka.
For the first time in nearly three decades, Tamils will be able to vote without the Liberation Tigers of Tamil Eelam (LTTE) dictating their choice. Sri Lanka's military defeated the separatists in May, ending 25 years of civil war.
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 told reporters at a meeting at his official residence.
"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.
Rajapaksa has pledged to consider the question of devolution of power to Tamil areas, but his proposals have been vague and aides say they do not expect him to give any concrete plans until after the polls.
He has pledged to hold provincial elections in the north soon after the general election. (Editing by Nick Macfie)
- Reuters - Thomson Reuters Foundation
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