Thousands of fans, and an elephant, witness history

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Hambantota, Sri Lanka, Feb 20 (AFP) Thousands welcomedthe World Cup to Hambantota today, and in a land of ancienttemples and leopards, even an elephant slowly ambled along tomark the occasion.

Fans had bought their tickets well in advance of SriLanka''s clash with Canada at the 35,000 capacity MahindaRajapakse stadium which was hosting international cricket forthe first time.

"I am elated. Two World Cup matches coming to our part ofthe country is a double delight," said Nuwan Tharanga, whotravelled 50 kilometres on public transport from Beliatta withhis son Thishanta.

The match opened amidst defeaning music, while theofficial World Cup song was presented in Sinhalese.

It was then that a wild elephant emerged from the foreststo peer curiously over the stadium fence.

"It''s historic and because of the World Cup our provincenow has new roads and other facilities which will go a longway in the development of this part of the country," addedTharanga.

The Bundala National Park, Yala National Park -- with thehighest concentration of leopards in the world -- and thetemples at Kataragama are major tourist attractions in an areawhich was devastated by the 2004 tsunami.

"I arranged my tour three months ago," said TimMathiason, from Canberra, Australia.

"First my son and I visited all the parks and now we havetickets for both the matches in Hambantota, it''s a very goodstadium."

The ground, named after the country''s president, wasbuilt for the World Cup at a cost of around eight milliondollars.

Rajapakse was expected to inaugurate the stadium, whichwill also host the Pakistan-Kenya match on Wednesday, laterSunday.

On the way to the stadium, there were stalls sellingnational flags and blue and yellow Sri Lankan team shirts,going for 10 to 20 dollars.

"It''s great fun and a carnival-like atmosphere," saidSudesh Kumar, accompanied by his wife Chathrani Dilukshi, whoboth arrived by bike from nearby Suriyawewa.

Despite alcohol and musical instruments being banned bythe Sri Lankan authorities, as part of a security clampdown,people were still well-equipped with drinks and trumpets.

Large numbers of police and military personnel searchedvehicles, frisked spectators and confiscated any banned items.

"We had announced that alcohol, musical instruments,sharp objects, glass bottles, cans, firecrackers and smokebombs are not permitted, and we are happy that the fans areco-operating," a police spokesman said.

People also weathered scorching 30-degree sunshine tocheer on their national team.

"I am very happy for Hambantota and I must thank the ICC(International Cricket Council) for giving us a World Cupmatch," said Anujadashar Karunaranta, who left home at nine inthe morning from Tissamaharama to make the start of the gamefive and half hours later. (AFP) PDS

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