Shooting mars final day of Sri Lanka vote campaign

COLOMBO - Gunmen shot and wounded three opposition activists Monday who were preparing a stage for President Mahinda Rajapakse's chief rival on the final day of campaigning in Sri Lanka's election, police said.

The men were hit in a drive-by shooting as they erected a podium for Maithripala Sirisena to address a rally in the southern town of Kahawatte, around 130 kilometres (80 miles) from the capital Colombo.

"A vehicle convoy approached the site and at least one person travelling in one of the vehicles opened fire wounding three people," said Superintendent Ajith Rohana.

"We have information about the identity of attackers and we are trying to make arrests." A nearby ruling party office was smashed shortly after the shooting in what appeared to be a retaliatory strike, Rohana added.

Sporadic violence was reported from other parts of the island, prompting Sirisena to appeal for calm as the campaign was due to end at midnight (1800 GMT).

"I have conducted a peaceful campaign and appeal to my opponent (Rajapakse) to please also ensure that there is peace in the three days before the voting on January 8," Sirisena told reporters in Colombo.

He said he was confident of victory and promised protection for Rajapakse and his family members in what he called a "new post-election political culture I will usher in from Friday".

The ruling party has also expressed confidence of winning the election that the incumbent called two years ahead of schedule.

Rajapakse, who oversaw Sri Lanka's 2009 victory over Tamil separatist rebels at the end of a 37-year ethnic conflict, had been seen as the overwhelming favourite at the start of the campaign.

But he has been undermined by defections from both within his party and other members of his ruling coalition, throwing into doubt his prospects of winning an unprecedented third term and extending a nine-year rule.

Private local election monitors have said they have received over 1,100 complaints since campaigning got underway in early December.

Police said they had received a much smaller number of complaints, but that 130 arrests had been made.

The private monitors, the Campaign for Free and Fair Elections, said the increasing violence was well organised and targeted the opposition, which is mounting a serious challenge against two-term incumbent Rajapakse.

Previous elections have been marred by violence, particularly against Tamil and Muslim voters who are the opposition's major support base.

Sirisena left his health portfolio and quit Rajapakse's administration in November to become the main opposition candidate.

Local media reports say the two men are currently neck and neck, and the results are expected by the end of Friday.