Larger-than-expected numbers of Sri Lankans voted Monday for a new president in defiance of threats by Sinhalese rebels who killed at least 16 people in a bid to sabotage the election, officials said.

Troops in armored cars went door-to-door in many areas urging people to ignore a boycott called by the Janatha Vimukthi Peramuna, known as the JVP or People's Liberation Front, which opposed the poll.Fears of JVP retribution seemed to be strong only in the extremist group's southern base. An army officer in the town of Pitiwella said, "I am on a confidence-building patrol but so few people are voting."

Security forces tried to break a JVP-instigated strike, ordering shops to open and smashing shutters with hatchets. By 2:30 p.m., most businesses in the south and many parts of Colombo were closed and roads were nearly deserted.

Some 9.3 million people were eligible to vote for a successor to President Junius Jayewardene, 83, the pro-Western leader who took power in 1977 and retires Tuesday amid the worst political crisis since independence from Britain in 1948.

The polls opened at 7 a.m. and closed at 4 p.m. and the final result was not expected until early Tuesday.

The main contenders were Prime Minister Ranasingha Premadasa of Jayewadene's United National Party (UNP) and Sirimavo Bandaranaike, who governed from 1970 until 1977 and heads a four-party coalition led by her Sri Lanka Freedom Party. Both campaigned on a platform of peace for the island, formerly known as Ceylon.

Also running was Ossie Abeygoonarsekera of the four-party United Socialist Alliance.

"This is a battle between the bullet and the ballot," Premadasa said after casting his ballot in Colombo.

The JVP, comprised mostly of youths of the ethnic Sinhalese majority blamed for more than 2,400 slayings since July 1987, threatened to kill poll officials and anyone who voted.

Police said JVP gunmen stormed a polling station near Matale, 90 miles northeast of Colombo, and fired on voters, killing three and wounding 18. At least nine other voters died in attacks in southern, western and central Sri Lanka, police said.

Extremists also staged three ambushes that claimed the lives of two security personnel and an election official and his driver, police said. One voter and one police officer were reported injured.

Election Commission officials said reports showed a higher-than-expected turnout, with several areas showing 60 percent to 90 percent. The turnout in Colombo was put at 65 percent and at 50 percent in the JVPis violence-torn Southern Province stronghold.

But officials said that in the north, where rebels from the Tamil minority called a boycott, attendance was very low.

The size of the turnout was considered crucial in a country where traditionally up to 82 percent of eligible voters participate in elections. A low turnout could provoke a rejection of the winner and fuel new unrest.

The contest was overshadowed by a JVP campaign of murder, sabotage, strikes and intimidation aimed at driving the UNP from power. The group vowed to block the election, claiming none of the candidates were worthy and the government would rig the outcome in Premadasa's favor.