Sri Lanka allows 127,000 Tamil refugees to leave camps

By Associated Press
December 2, 2009

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COLOMBO, Sri Lanka - Sri Lanka gave permission yesterday to nearly 127,000 Tamil refugees to leave squalid and overrun government camps where they have been detained since the country’s civil war ended six months ago, an official said.

Some 300,000 war refugees were forced into the camps after fleeing the war zone in the final months of the government’s decades-long fight with the separatist Tamil Tiger rebels, which ended in May.

The ethnic-minority Tamils were held against their will, surrounded by barbed wire and guarded by soldiers. The government maintained that the Tamils had to be screened for rebel ties and that land mines had to be removed from their villages before they could return.

Rights groups have called the detention an illegal form of collective punishment.

More than half were released in recent months amid pressure from rights groups and foreign governments, and the remaining 127,000 could apply to leave starting yesterday.

After registering with camp officials, the refugees are free to leave, although those whose villages have yet to be cleared of mines will not be allowed to resettle, military spokesman Brig. Udaya Nanayakkara said. The camps will be closed completely by Jan. 31.

The registration process is quick: Nanayakkara said refugees need only inform camp officials where they intend to go and how long they want to stay.

Nanayakkara said nearly 7,200 people so far sought permission to leave, many of whom were headed to find family members after being separated for months by the fighting.