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Sri Lanka to free displaced refugees
VAVUNIYA (Sri Lanka), NOV 21 (Agencies):
Published on 21 Nov. 2009 11:24 PM IST
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Sri Lanka's government says people held in special camps since the end of the conflict with Tamil Tiger rebels will be free to leave next month. The camps were set up in the north for Tamils fleeing the final stages of the civil war - which ended in May - and still house more than 130,000 people. An aide to the president also confirmed a pledge to close the facilities. Sri Lanka has drawn strong international criticism for holding people in the camps against their will. On Thursday UN humanitarian chief John Holmes urged Sri Lanka to allow them to leave, following a visit to the camp. The latest government announcement was made by the special adviser to President Mahinda Rajapaksa, his brother Basil, at the largest camp, Menik Farm. Addressing a group of displaced people, he said that from 1 December the camps would no longer be closed sites, and people would be free to visit friends and family. He also reiterated the government's pledge to resettle those displaced by the end of January. About 300,000 Tamils fled the war zone during the government's final offensive against the Liberation Tigers of Tamil Eelam (LTTE) earlier this year. Those displaced - many of whom had been held as human shields by the rebels - were forced into hastily built camps. The government insisted that incarceration was necessary while the refugees were being screened for possible links with the rebels. It has also said that more than 1.5m mines must be cleared and basic infrastructure needs to be in place to allow people to return home. The barbed-wire enclosures are run by the military, and many of those displaced had complained about poor food and sanitary conditions. But the UN, diplomats and charities have criticised the screening process, saying it is not transparent. Opposition parliamentarians in Sri Lanka have also protested about not being allowed access to the camps. The BBC's Charles Haviland in Colombo says the government had been sensitive to the criticism, and within the past month has markedly stepped up the pace of releases. In May the Sri Lankan army defeated the Tamil Tigers, who had been fighting since the mid-1970s to carve out a separate nation in the Sinhalese-majority island.

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