Iran TV: Supreme Leader Supports Gas Price Increases

Iran’s supreme leader Sunday backed the government’s decision to raise gasoline prices and called angry protesters who have been setting fire to public property over the hike “bandits,” signaling a potential crackdown on the demonstrations.

Ayatollah Ali Khamenei’s comments came as authorities apparently shut down the internet across Iran to smother the protests in about two dozen cities and towns over the rise of government-set prices by 50% as of Friday.

Since the hike, demonstrators have abandoned their cars along major highways and joined mass protests in the capital, Tehran, and elsewhere. Some protests turned violent, with demonstrators setting fires and there was also gunfire.

It remains to be seen how many people have been injured, killed or arrested. Authorities on Saturday said only one person was killed, though other videos from the protests have shown people gravely wounded.

In this Saturday, Nov. 16, 2019 image from video aired by Iran's Islamic Republic of Iran Broadcasting state television channel…
Protesters are seen on a street in Khorramshahr, Iran, in this Nov. 16, 2019, image from video aired by Iran’s Islamic Republic of Iran Broadcasting state television channel.

State television address

In an address aired by state television Sunday, Khamenei said “some people had died and some centers destroyed,” without elaborating. He called violent protesters “bandits” who had been pushed into violence by counterrevolutionaries and foreign enemies of Iran.

However, he made a point to back the decision of Iran’s relatively moderate President Hassan Rouhani and others to raise gasoline prices. Gasoline in the country still remains among the cheapest in the world, with the new prices jumping up to a minimum of 15,000 rials per liter of gas — up 50% from the day before. That’s 13 cents a liter, or about 50 cents a gallon. On average a gallon of regular gasoline in the U.S. costs $2.60 by comparison.

Khamenei ordered security forces “to implement their tasks” and for Iran’s citizens to keep clear of violent demonstrators.

That seemed to indicate a possible crackdown could be looming. Economic protests in late 2017 into 2018 were met by a heavy reaction by the police and the Basij, the all-volunteer force of Iran’s paramilitary Revolutionary Guard.

Cars block a street during a protest against a rise in gasoline prices, in the central city of Isfahan, Iran, Nov. 16, 2019.
Cars block a street during a protest against a rise in gasoline prices, in the central city of Isfahan, Iran, Nov. 16, 2019.

Protests largely peaceful

The protests have put renewed pressure on Iran’s government as it struggles to overcome U.S. sanctions strangling the country’s economy since President Donald Trump unilaterally withdrew America from Tehran’s nuclear deal with world powers over a year ago.

Though largely peaceful, the latest demonstrations devolved into violence in several instances, with online videos purporting to show police officers firing tear gas at protesters and mobs setting fires.

While representing a political risk for Rouhani ahead of February parliamentary elections, they also show widespread anger among Iran’s 80 million people who have seen their savings evaporate amid scarce jobs and the collapse of the national currency, the rial.

Cheap gasoline is practically considered a birthright in Iran, home to the world’s fourth-largest crude oil reserves. Rouhani had been pushing for higher prices to offer payments to the poor for months. While the hike was eventually expected, the decision to raise gasoline prices still caught many by surprise and sparked immediate demonstrations overnight.

Smoke rises during a protest after authorities raised fuel prices, in the central city of Isfahan, Iran, Nov. 16, 2019.
Smoke rises during a protest after authorities raised fuel prices, in the central city of Isfahan, Iran, Nov. 16, 2019.

Internet outages

Iranian internet access meanwhile saw disruptions and outages Friday night into Saturday, according to the group NetBlocks, which monitors worldwide internet access. By Saturday night, “real-time network data show connectivity has fallen to just 7% of ordinary levels following 12 hours of progressive network disconnections as public protests have continued across the country,” NetBlocks said.

“The ongoing disruption is the most severe recorded in Iran since President Rouhani came to power, and the most severe disconnection tracked by NetBlocks in any country in terms of its technical complexity and breadth,” the group said. The websites of state media outlets appeared affected by the outage early Sunday.

Protester chants seen in online videos mirrored many from the economic protests in late 2017, which resulted in nearly 5,000 reported arrests and at least 25 people killed. Some criticized Iran’s spending abroad on Palestinians and others while the country’s people remain poor.

The tensions in Iran came as weeks of anti-government protests have engulfed Iraq and Lebanon, two Mideast nations that are home to Iranian proxies and crucial to Tehran’s influence abroad.

Iran long has suffered economic problems since its 1979 Islamic Revolution cut off the country’s decades-long relationship with the U.S. Iran’s eight-year war with Iraq in the 1980s followed, further straining its economy.

The collapse of the nuclear deal has exacerbated those problems. The Iranian rial, which traded at 32,000 to $1 at the time of the accord, fell to 122,600 to $1 in trading on Saturday. Iran has since begun breaking terms of the deal as it tries to force Europe to come up with a way to allow it to sell crude oil abroad despite American sanctions.

Former Sri Lanka Defense Chief Set to Become President

Sri Lanka’s former wartime defense chief Gotabaya Rajapaksa was set to become president after his main rival conceded defeat Sunday in an election that came months after bombings by Islamist militants threw the country into turmoil.

Rajapaksa oversaw the military defeat of Tamil separatists under his brother and then president Mahinda Rajapaksa 10 years ago. He has promised strong leadership to secure the island of 22 million people, the majority of whom are Sinhalese Buddhists.

Rajapaksa, 70, would be the latest nationalist leader swept to power across the world, tapping into the anger and fears of majority communities.

He and his brothers, who are expected to get key positions, are also seen as closer to China, which has invested billions of dollars building ports, expressways and power stations.

But these projects have also led to high debt levels for Sri Lanka.

Conciliatory tone

In his first comments, Rajapaksa struck a conciliatory note, suggesting he would be a leader of all Sri Lankans, regardless of their ethnic and religious identities.

“As we usher in a new journey for Sri Lanka, we must remember that all Sri Lankans are part of this journey. Let us rejoice peacefully, with dignity and discipline in the same manner in which we campaigned,” Rajapaksa said in a tweet.

Tamil political parties are strongly opposed to Rajapaksa, who has faced allegations of widespread human rights violations of civilians in the final stages of the war against the separatists in 2009.

Rajapaksa and his brother deny the allegations.

Muslims, the other large minority group, say they too have faced hostility since the April attacks on hotels and churches in which more than 250 people were killed. Islamic State claimed responsibility.

With half the votes counted from Saturday’s election, Rajapaksa led with 50.7 percent, while his main rival Sajith Premadasa had 43.8 percent, the election commission said.

Conceding defeat

Premadasa, a housing minister in the current government that has faced criticism for failing to protect Sri Lankans in the wake of the suicide bombings in April, conceded defeat.

“At the conclusion of a hard fought and spirited election campaign, it is my privilege to honor the decision of the people and congratulate Mr. Gotabaya Rajapaksa on his election as the seventh President of Sri Lanka,” Premadasa said.

Millions voted to elect a new president to lead the country out of its deepest economic slump in more than 15 years, dragged down by its tourism sector following the bombings.

His victory margin showed huge support in the Sinhalese-dominated southern parts of the island.

Premadasa, who campaigned on policies to help the poor, led in the north and east where minority Tamils are predominant.

He urged Rajapaksa to ensure he took all Sri Lankans along and not target those who opposed him in the election.

“I also urge Mr. Rajapaksa to ensure that the post-election environment is peaceful, and that no citizen or New Democratic Party supporter is persecuted or harmed for their role in supporting my candidacy,” he said, referring to his party.
 

US, South Korea Delay Military Exercise Criticized by North Korea

The United States and South Korea announced Sunday they will postpone upcoming military drills in an effort to bolster a stalled peace push with North Korea, even as Washington denied the move amounted to another concession to Pyongyang.

The drills, known as the Combined Flying Training Event, would have simulated air combat scenarios and involved an undisclosed number of warplanes from the United States and South Korea.

In deference to Pyongyang, the exercises had already been reduced in scale and scope from previous years, but North Korea still objected to them regardless.

Effort to enable peace

U.S. Defense Secretary Mark Esper said the U.S. and South Korean militaries would remain at a high state of readiness despite the move, and he denied that the decision to postpone the drills was a concession to North Korea.

“I don’t see this as a concession. I see this as a good faith effort … to enable peace,” Esper told reporters, as he announced the decision standing alongside South Korean counterpart Jeong Kyeong-doo in Bangkok, where Asian defense chiefs are gathered for talks.

The drills were meant to begin in the coming days.

Earlier this month, a senior North Korean diplomat blamed the U.S. joint aerial drill for “throwing cold water” over talks with Washington. Pyongyang regularly opposes such U.S.-South Korean joint military exercises, viewing them as a rehearsal for invasion.

US urges resumption of talks

Still, it was unclear whether the decision by Washington and Seoul would kickstart talks with Pyongyang aimed at getting the reclusive state to give up its nuclear weapons program.

Esper said he hoped North Korea would respond to the gesture.

“We encourage the DPRK to demonstrate the same goodwill as it considers decisions on conducting training, exercises and testing,” he said, using the acronym for the North’s official name, the Democratic People’s Republic of Korea. “We also urge the DPRK to return to the negotiating table without precondition or hesitation.”

North Korea missile tests

As talks stall, North Korea has tested the limits of engagement with a string of missile launches, and experts warn that the lack of a concrete arms control agreement has allowed the country to continue producing nuclear weapons.

The missile tests have practical value for the North Korean military’s efforts to modernize its arsenal. But they also underscore Pyongyang’s increasingly belligerent position in the face of what it sees as an inflexible and hostile United States.

The U.S.-South Korea exercises had already been scaled back from 2017, when it was called Vigilant Ace. Vigilant Ace had more than 230 aircraft, including six F-22 Raptor stealth fighters, and around 12,000 U.S. service members.

Asked when the United States and South Korea would hold the postponed drills, South Korea’s Jeong declined to offer any sense of timing, saying only that it would be decided through “close coordination” with Washington.

Prince Andrew Disputes Accusations of Epstein Accuser

Prince Andrew offered a detailed rebuttal Saturday to claims he had sex with a woman who says she was trafficked by Jeffrey Epstein, providing an alibi for one of the alleged encounters and questioning the authenticity of a well-known photograph that shows him posing with the woman.

In a rare interview with BBC Newsnight, Andrew categorically denied having sex with the woman, Virginia Roberts Giuffre, saying, “It didn’t happen.”

He said he has “no recollection” of ever meeting her and told an interviewer there are “a number of things that are wrong” about Giuffre’s account.

Giuffre has said Epstein forced her to have sex with Andrew in 2001 when she was 17. She says Epstein flew her around the world on his private planes to have sex with powerful men, and that she had sexual encounters with Andrew in London and New York and in the U.S. Virgin Islands.

“I can absolutely categorically tell you it never happened,” Andrew said.

A request for comment was sent to Giuffre’s representative. Giuffre recently challenged the British royal to speak out, telling reporters in New York, “He knows exactly what he’s done.”

“And the answer is nothing,” Andrew told BBC.

High-stakes interview

Andrew’s decision to grant the interview was seen in Britain as a high-stakes gamble in a country where the royals don’t normally talk with reporters on subjects beyond their charitable works.

The nation’s newspapers, most of which featured photos from the interview along with the pre-released excerpts on their front pages Saturday, speculated that the prince thought he had no other choice after months of tawdry headlines that threatened his ability to continue working as a royal.

Disputes photo, other claims

In the wide-ranging interview, Andrew suggested a photograph Giuffre produced of her posing with Andrew could have been doctored, saying he “can’t be certain” that it actually shows his hand on the woman’s side.

He said he was “at a loss to explain” the image, adding he is not given to public displays of affection. He said it also shows him wearing “traveling clothes,” noting he typically wears a suit and tie when he goes out in London, where the photograph purportedly was taken.

“I’m afraid to say that I don’t believe that photograph was taken in the way that has been suggested,” he said. “If the original was ever produced, then perhaps we might be able to solve it but I can’t.”

Confronted with details of Giuffre’s claims, Andrew insisted he was home with his children on one of the nights Giuffre claims they had sex, saying it “couldn’t have happened.” He said he specifically recalled taking his daughter to a party at a Pizza Express that afternoon.

Andrew sought to cast doubt on other parts of Giuffre’s account, including her recollection of Andrew sweating on her as they danced in a London night club.

Andrew told BBC he has a “peculiar medical condition, which is that I don’t sweat or I didn’t sweat at the time” after suffering an “overdose of adrenaline” after being shot at in the Falklands War, the 1982 conflict between Argentina and the United Kingdom.
“It was almost impossible for me to sweat,” he said.

Regrets friendship

Andrew also said he regrets not cutting ties with Epstein after the financier pleaded guilty in 2008 to soliciting a minor for prostitution in Florida under a deal that required him to serve 13 months in jail and register as a sex offender.

He saw Epstein following his release from custody in Florida and stayed at his New York mansion for several days. He said he ended his friendship with Epstein during that visit and did not have further contact with him.

“It was the wrong decision to go and see him in 2010,” Andrew said. “I kick myself for (it) on a daily basis because it was not something that was becoming of a member of the royal family.”

Epstein, who rubbed shoulders with the elite and politically powerful, killed himself this summer while awaiting trial on federal sex-trafficking charges. He had been accused of sexually abusing dozens of women.

Andrew did not rule out cooperating with the ongoing federal investigation in the United States into Epstein’s associates, saying he would follow his lawyers’ advice.

Hong Kong Police Train Water Cannons, Tear Gas on Protesters

Hong Kong police water cannon trucks drove over bricks and nails strewn by protesters and sprayed them at close range Sunday, as opposition lawmakers criticized the Chinese military for joining a cleanup to remove debris from streets.

Other officers fired tear gas in a bid to drive out a determined group of protesters on the streets outside Hong Kong Polytechnic University. The push came in an hourslong standoff that followed intense clashes the previous night.

A large group of people arrived in the morning to try to clean up the road, but were warned away by protesters.

Riot police officers stand during clashes with protesters outside Hong Kong Polytechnic University (PolyU) in Hong Kong, China…
Riot police officers stand during clashes with protesters outside Hong Kong Polytechnic University in Hong Kong, Nov. 17, 2019.

Riot police lined up a few hundred meters (yards) away and shot several volleys of tear gas at the protesters, who sheltered behind a wall of umbrellas across an entire street and threw gasoline bombs into nearby bushes and trees, setting them on fire.

The water cannons arrived in the early afternoon, one using blue-dyed water to drench the protesters.

Anti-government protesters clean blue liquid from the police’s water cannon outside Hong Kong Polytechnic University in Hong Kong, Nov. 17, 2019.

The daytime faceoff came after a pitched battle at night in which the two sides exchanged tear gas and gasoline bombs that left fires blazing in the street. Many protesters retreated inside the Polytechnic campus, where they have barricaded entrances and set up narrow access control points.

Protesters have largely retreated from occupations of several major campuses last week, except for a contingent at Polytechnic. That group is also blocking access to the nearby Cross-Harbour Tunnel, one of the three main road tunnels that link Hong Kong Island with the rest of the city.

Soldiers join cleanup

Elsewhere, workers and volunteers, including a group of Chinese soldiers who came out from their barracks, cleared roads of debris Saturday as most of the protesters melted away.

Personnel from the Chinese People’s Liberation Army barracks in Hong Kong emerged on to the city streets, Nov. 16, 2019, to help with the cleanup.

There were scattered incidents of protesters arguing and clashing with people clearing roadways, and in one instance, throwing a gasoline bomb near City University of Hong Kong.

Opposition lawmakers issued a statement criticizing the Chinese military for joining the cleanup. The military is allowed to help maintain public order, but only at the request of the Hong Kong government.

Dozens of Chinese troops, dressed in black shorts and olive drab T-shirts, ran out in loose formation near Hong Kong Baptist University and picked up paving stones, rocks and other obstacles that had cluttered the street

The Hong Kong government said that it had not requested the military’s assistance, describing it as a voluntary community activity.

Classes canceled

The Education Bureau announced that classes from kindergarten to high school would be suspended again on Monday because of safety concerns.

Classes have been canceled since Thursday, after the bureau came under criticism for not doing so earlier.

The city’s anti-government protests have been raging for more than five months.

They were sparked by a government decision to submit legislation that would have allowed the extradition of criminal suspects to the mainland. Activists saw it as an erosion of Hong Kong’s autonomy under the “one country, two systems” formula implemented in 1997, when Britain returned the territory to China.

The bill has been withdrawn, but the protests have expanded into a wider resistance movement against what is perceived as the growing control of Hong Kong by Communist China, along with calls for full democracy for the territory.

Report Deplores Conditions for Sanitation Workers in Developing Countries

A new report by leading health and safety agencies finds millions of sanitation workers in developing countries are forced to work under horrific conditions that put their health and lives at risk.

Sanitation workers everywhere occupy the lowest rung of society and are stigmatized and marginalized because they do the dirty work that other people do not want to do.  

The report’s authors – the International Labor Organization, the World Health Organization, the World Bank and WaterAid – say they hope to raise awareness on the plight of sanitation workers and the dehumanizing conditions under which they are forced to work. For example, the report says that many sanitation workers aren’t given the safety training or equipment needed to protect them when handling effluent or fecal sludge.

World Health Organization spokesman Christian Lindmeier says sanitation workers make an important contribution to public health at the risk of their own lives. Poor sanitation, he says, causes more than 430,000 deaths from diarrhea every year and is linked to the spread of other diseases such as cholera, dysentery, typhoid, hepatitis A and polio.

“Sanitation workers are the people who work in jobs such as cleaning toilets, emptying pits and septic tanks, cleaning sewage and manholes and operating pumping stations and treatment plants.… Waste must be correctly treated before being disposed of or used.  However, workers often come into direct contact with human waste, working with no equipment or no protection to remove it by hand which exposes them to a long list of health hazards and diseases,” Lindmeier said.

Authors of the report say sanitation workers in developing countries largely operate in the informal sector.  They labor under abusive conditions, have no rights or social protections and are poorly paid.

The study calls on countries to rectify these wrongs.  It urges governments to enact laws and regulations that improve working conditions for sanitation workers and protect their safety and health.  It says sanitation workers must be given the equipment and training necessary for the safe, proper disposal of waste. 
 

Male Inmates Accused of Raping Women Held in Same Haiti Jail

Authorities in Haiti said late Friday they are investigating allegations that a group of male inmates raped 10 women in a makeshift jail in the northern city of Gonaives.

Prosecutor Serard Gazius told The Associated Press that more than 50 men broke out of their cells last week and overpowered police officers guarding the inmates, adding that an unknown number of them are suspected of raping 10 of 12 women being held in the same facility but in separate cells.

He said the male and female inmates were being held in a former United Nations facility because the original prison was destroyed years ago and a new one hasn’t been built. Gazius said the women were scared and have yet to identify the suspects, adding that they have received medical care.

Gazius said the women were being held on charges ranging from robberies to attempted murder. None of them have been convicted.

Jean Castro Previl, head of the Artibonite police department, declined to comment and referred all questions to Gazius.

All 340 detainees have been transferred to other facilities as authorities continue the investigation, with Gazius adding that violent protests that began more than two months ago seeking the president’s resignation are making it difficult to prosecute suspects because some courts have been shuttered, along with many schools and businesses.

A human rights group known as the Defenders Plus Collective denounced the alleged rapes and called on the government to prosecute the suspects and do more to protect women and girls across Haiti as violence and political turmoil worsen.

“With the chaotic situation that Haiti’s population is facing, armed gangs have taken advantage and multiplied and acted with impunity and tranquility under the passive gaze of state authorities,” the organization said in a statement.
 

House, Senate Agree on Something: A Way to Fight Robocalls

It’s looking like an anti-robocall bill will be sent to President Donald Trump this year, helping tackle an infuriating problem in the U.S.

House and Senate leaders said Friday they’ve reached an agreement in principle on merging their two bills against robocalls.

The House bill had gone further than the Senate one. Details about what’s in the final bill are still to come, but legislators say it will require phone companies to verify that phone numbers are real, and to block calls for free. It will also give government agencies more ability to go after scammers.

It’s the latest effort in a crackdown, building on steps by state attorneys general and the Federal Communications Commission as well as the phone companies.

Phone companies have been rolling out verification tools after prompting from regulators. These reassure customers that the number showing up on their phone is actually the number that called, and not a fraudster “spoofing,” or faking, the number to try to get people to pick it up. Numbers can be faked to look like they’re coming from the IRS, for example, or from a number with the same area code as you. But to combat this successfully, all carriers need to put the anti-spoofing system in place.

Telecom companies are also offering call-blocking apps for smartphones and many home phones, although not always for free. The FCC in June gave them permission to turn on call-blocking by default. While tools had been available before, customers might not have known to ask about them.

Robocalls have become almost inescapable as the cost of sending them dropped and going after callers is difficult. Tech vendor YouMail said there were 5.7 billion calls from scammers, telemarketers, debt collectors and others in October. Not all those calls are unwanted, though — you might want to get the call from your pharmacy saying your prescription is ready.

Palestinian Rockets, Israeli Airstrikes Shake Tenuous Truce

Palestinian militants fired two rockets deep into southern Israel from Gaza Saturday, and the Israeli military responded with a number of air strikes on militant targets, shaking an already tenuous truce. 

Sirens sounded in the middle of the night in Beersheba, the largest city in southern Israel, about 35 km (18 miles) from the Gaza border, warning of incoming fire. The military said its missile defenses intercepted the two rockets.

A few hours later, Israeli aircraft struck a number of militant outposts belonging to Hamas, the Islamist group that rules Gaza. No injuries were reported.

The overnight rocket attack came nearly two days after a ceasefire ended a flare-up in cross-border violence between Israel and a smaller Palestinian militant group, Islamic Jihad.

The worst fighting in months was triggered Tuesday when Israel killed a top commander from the Iranian-backed Islamic Jihad, deeming him an imminent threat.

A Palestinian demonstrator argues with an Israeli border policeman during a protest against Jewish settlements near Hebron, in…
A Palestinian demonstrator argues with an Israeli border policeman during a protest against Jewish settlements near Hebron, in the Israeli-occupied West Bank, Nov. 15, 2019.

Gaza medical officials said 34 Palestinians had been killed in the two days of fighting, almost half of them civilians.

At the same time, hundreds of rocket launches by militants paralyzed much of southern Israel and reached as far north as Tel Aviv, sending entire communities to shelters. Dozens of Israelis were injured.

Throughout the fighting, Hamas, the dominant force in Gaza, appeared to have stayed on the sidelines. That may have helped stem the escalation.

Israel’s military, however, said Saturday that it would hold Hamas responsible for any attack emanating from Gaza.

“Hamas will bear the consequences for actions against Israeli civilians,” it said in a statement.

Muslim Voters Attacked as Sri Lanka Elects President

Polls closed Saturday evening after a day of voting for Sri Lanka’s next president, an election marred by shots fired at a convoy of Muslims heading to cast their ballots in what some called a coordinated effort to disenfranchise the minority group.

There were no reported injuries in the convoy attack and police were investigating, said Manjula Gajanayake, spokesman for the Colombo-based Center for Monitoring Election Violence. The center said there were reports elsewhere of minor election law violations, such as supporters influencing voters near polling stations and distributing mock ballots with party symbols.

Campaigning for Sri Lanka’s presidential election was dominated by worries over national security, which was pushed to the forefront after deadly Islamic State-inspired suicide bomb attacks on Easter Sunday that killed 269 people. At the same time, there’s fear among both Tamils and Muslims about a return to power of front-runner Gotabaya Rajapaksa, a hard-line former defense official under his brother, ex-President Mahinda Rajapaksa.

The Rajapaksa brothers are revered by Sri Lanka’s Sinhalese Buddhist majority for defeating the Tamil Tiger rebels in 2009 and ending the nation’s long-running civil war. But because of their heavy-handed rule during and after the war, some minorities fear their return.

Rajapaksa had been widely expected to triumph over the ruling party candidate, Housing Minister Sajith Premadasa. But as the election approached, the race became very close.

Sri Lanka's former Defense Secretary and presidential candidate Gotabaya Rajapaksa, center, leaves a polling station after…
Sri Lanka’s former Defense Secretary and presidential candidate Gotabaya Rajapaksa, center, leaves a polling station after casting his vote in Embuldeniya, on the outskirts of Colombo, Sri Lanka, Nov. 16, 2019.

Nearly 16 million of the 22 million people were eligible to vote and choose a new president from a record 35 candidates. President Maithripala Sirisena, who was elected in 2015, is not seeking reelection. Results are expected as early as Sunday.

A decade of peace following nearly 30 years of civil war was shattered earlier this year when homegrown militants pledging loyalty to the Islamic State group detonated suicide bombs at three churches and three hotels on April 21. Gotabaya Rajapaksa, 71, cast himself as the only candidate capable of protecting Sri Lankans from such attacks.

During the war, he is accused of persecuting critics and overseeing what were called “white van squads” that whisked away journalists, activists and Tamil civilians suspected of links to the Tamil Tigers. Some were tortured and released, while others simply disappeared. The Rajapaksa brothers are also accused of condoning rape and extrajudicial killings and deliberately targeting civilians and hospitals during the war.

The Muslims attacked Saturday were part of a convoy organized by Premadasa’s supporters and was taking them back to vote in the northern district of Mannar. Many Muslims fled the area in 1982, when the Tamil insurgency began to grow, and others were evicted from the north in 1990.

The Elections Commission had encouraged them to register as voters in Mannar but had not arranged enough transportation to bring them from their homes in the northwestern district of Puttalam, Gajanayake said.

As they were heading to vote, they were shot at, pelted with stones and blocked by burning tires hours before polls opened.

Shreen Saroor, an activist working with displaced Muslims, said the attack made them more determined to vote and they were using public transport and private vehicles to get to the polling stations in Mannar.

“There is a concerted effort to keep the Muslims away from the ballot box,” Ratnajeevan Hoole, a member of the Elections Commission, told The Associated Press.

It wasn’t immediately clear whether any of the attackers had been arrested.

Presidential candidate of Sri Lanka's governing party Sajith Premadasa displays the indelible ink mark on his finger after…
Presidential candidate of Sri Lanka’s governing party Sajith Premadasa displays the indelible ink on his finger after casting his vote in Weerawila, Sri Lanka, Nov. 16 , 2019.

Hoole said he had called for the arrest of a former top Tamil rebel commander in the east now in alliance with Rajapaksa for making inflammatory comments against Muslims in the run-up to the election, but his request was not heeded.

The ex-rebel commander, Vinayagamoorthy Muralitharan, broke away from the Tamil Tigers in 2004 and worked with the government to defeat the rebel group. His split helped the government end the 26-year war.

Hoole said that in videos posted on social media, Muralitharan — also known as Karuna Amman — had talked about the need to suppress the Muslim vote to undermine Muslims’ growing influence in Sri Lanka’s Eastern province.

At a Buddhist temple serving as a polling station in a suburb of Colombo heavily guarded by police, Rajapaksa arrived to cheering and clapping supporters, some watching from their balconies and rooftops.

He told The Associated Press that he was “very confident” of victory.

“People of Sri Lanka will get a better future under me, under my presidency,” he said.

Premadasa, the son of a former president who was assassinated in a Tamil Tiger suicide bombing, has gained support in recent weeks by promising to expand welfare programs and bringing disgruntled party stalwarts into the fold.

Because the Rajapaksas maintained emergency laws after the war ended, curtailing civil liberties, Premadasa and his supporters have warned that Sri Lankans could lose freedoms if the brothers return to power, a line of rhetoric that helped a coalition of political foes led by Sirisena defeat Mahinda Rajapaksa in 2015 elections.

Voters started trickling in early at a polling station guarded by armed police in Dehiwala, a suburb of the capital Colombo.

Sha Nawaz, a 72-year-old retired state employee, said he and his wife cast their ballots for Premadasa.

“The reason is we like him, young and we need a person like that in our country,” Nawaz said.