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Sri Lanka leader claims election win

COLOMBO, Sri Lanka -- Prime Minister Mahinda Rajapakse claimed victory today in Sri Lanka's presidential election after taking a slim lead with more than half of the votes counted.

The election, held yesterday, was considered a referendum on how to rescue the island's faltering peace process and its economy, which was devastated by a tsunami in December, but a rebel boycott of the vote helped the hawkish Rajapakse by keeping away ethnic Tamil voters expected to back opposition leader Ranil Wickremesinghe.

With more than 8 million votes counted, Rajapakse had secured 4,170,774 votes or 50.1 percent, just ahead of Wickremesinghe with 4,041,112 votes or 48.6 percent.

''The prime minister's election office is announcing that Prime Minister Mahinda Rajapakse has won the election for the fifth executive president of the country," Rajapakse's media secretary told Reuters, reading a statement.

''The prime minister's office requests everyone to peacefully celebrate this people's victory," the statement added.

A senior party official from Wickremesinghe's camp conceded defeat.

But as officials continued to count the vote, violence erupted again in the troubled east.

At least three people were killed and more than a dozen wounded in Akkaraipattu when two hand grenades were thrown into a mosque during dawn prayers, police said, blaming Tamil Tiger rebels.

Rajapakse has allied himself with hard-line Marxists and nationalists from the mainly Buddhist Sinhalese majority who detest the Tigers.

He rejects the rebels' demand for a separate homeland for minority Tamils, wants to tighten the terms of a 2002 truce that halted two decades of civil war and pledges a ''national economy", which some investors fear is code for protectionism.

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