JAFFNA - Minority Tamils voted in large numbers Saturday in a landmark election they hope will give them a chance at self-rule in Sri Lanka’s north after decades of ethnic conflict that claimed over 100,000 lives.

Balloting closed on time after nine hours, but the main opposition Tamil National Alliance, which is expected to win the semi-autonomous Northern Provincial council election, said the military tried to intimidate and discourage voters.

Despite reports of sporadic minor “incidents”, about 60 percent of the 426,000 electorate in Jaffna district voted, deputy elections commissioner S. Achchuthan told AFP.

“We took several measures to ensure people could vote freely and those steps appeared to have worked,” he said. “A turnout of over 60 percent is very, very good for Jaffna.”

Provisional figures indicated similar turnouts in the four other districts in the province. Results are expected by Sunday.

The vote in the former rebel stronghold has been promoted by the UN Human Rights Council as a step towards ethnic reconciliation after decades of fighting that ended when troops crushed Tamil separatists in 2009. The poll was held amid international pressure on the Sinhalese-dominated national government to share power with Tamils who are a national minority, but are in the majority in the battle-scarred north.

Printing press worker Anandan Kumaraswamy, 57, was among the first to vote near Jaffna’s landmark Nallur Hindu temple. He said he was “praying for change”.

The Northern Provincial Council was set up in 1987 but elections were never held and its functioning was controlled directly by the Sri Lankan president.

Retired Supreme Court judge Kanagasabapathy Wigneswaran is expected to be the region’s first elected chief minister in a council that will have limited powers over the local administration.

Wigneswaran, who turns 74 next month, said he wants to work with Colombo on pushing his Tamil National Alliance manifesto, which calls for “self-government” for Tamils.

Wigneswaran’s priorities are payment of war reparations, securing an army pull-out from the former combat zone and taking back land the military still occupies four years after defeating Tamil Tigers who fought for full independence.

“I will try to work with the (Colombo) government,” Wigneswaran told AFP, but vowed to go to the international community if the government fails to cooperate.

President Mahinda Rajapakse has accused the Tamil National Alliance — a coalition of several Tamil groups, including ex-militants — of raising expectations of a separate state.

Wigneswaran has hit back, saying Rajapakse was maintaining an “occupation army” to keep Tamils under “constant surveillance”.

“They are here for a political purpose, not for security reasons,” he said. “They must go.”

Tamils consider Jaffna, 400 kilometres north of Colombo, as their cultural capital. It suffered extensive destruction and huge loss of life, but since the end the war, Colombo has pumped in millions of dollars to rebuild infrastructure.

While thousands are still missing in the north and elsewhere in the country, the military says over 12,000 Tiger cadres who surrendered were “rehabilitated” and re-integrated in society. The military also denies intimidating voters.

Some 906 candidates contested 36 seats up for grabs in the Northern Council. Two more seats are earmarked for the party with the most votes under a system of proportional representation.

There were elections for two other provincial councils in the largely Sinhalese North West and Central regions Saturday with President Rajapakse’s party expected to win both. However, Rajapakse’s party is expected to be a distant second in the North.

Rajapakse has won almost every major election since he led the campaign that crushed Tamil Tigers in 2009.

However, the spectacular military success has also triggered international calls to probe allegations his troops killed up to 40,000 Tamil civilians in the final months of fighting.