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Sri Lanka sends 2,000 war refugees home

[Reuters, Tuesday, 9 June 2009 14:54 No Comment]

Sri Lanka sent more than 2,000 people back to their home villages in the island nation’s northwest on Tuesday, two years after they were displaced by the war with the Tamil Tiger separatists.

Tuesday’s resettlement is only the second to happen since Sri Lanka’s military finished off the Liberation Tigers of Tamil Eelam (LTTE) and declared total victory in a 25-year war on May 18.

Sri Lanka now has nearly 300,000 people living in refugee camps, and has pledged to resettle the bulk of them in six months — a tall challenge given the thousands of landmines that have to be cleared across formerly LTTE-held areas.

Those who returned said they were happy to be free of the restrictions on movement they had to deal with while in the camps. The government said it must weed out LTTE infiltrators before they allow people out of the camps.

"We are relieved to be back in our village and houses, even though they’re damaged. We were in the camps for two years and it was a very hard life there. We were not allowed to go out and no relatives were allowed to come in," said Julius Ranaweera, 25.

Sri Lanka’s government has pledged to rebuild the north, and India has offered assistance with reconstruction of homes and infrastructure.

"We need good schools in our villages for our children. Because we have to begin our lives from step one," said Maryan Liyon, 32, a fisherman.

Sri Lanka is under international pressure to resettle people quickly as possible and give more access to them. Rights groups and the LTTE have criticized the camps, but the United Nations says they are up to standards except for the restrictions on movement.

Meanwhile, Sri Lanka sent back a ship carrying an aid cargo paid for by expatriate Tamils and Tamil Tiger supporters.

Navy ships seized the Syrian-flagged Captain Ali on Thursday 160 km (100 miles) west of the capital and main port, Colombo.

"The government has the right to accept it and its cargo or reject it. It had not followed the proper procedure so government ordered it to leave," navy spokesman Commander Mahesh Karunaratne said.

The navy uncovered no illegal items, weapons or ammunition in the cargo of 884 tons of relief supplies, he said.

The U.K.-based Mercy Mission to the Vanni, which organized the voyage, said in a statement it was disappointed the "desperately needed emergency humanitarian relief has been rejected."

The Captain Ali was originally due to steam into the rebel-held area of the war zone, and Mercy Mission said it would bring aid to civilians, who were being held forcibly by the LTTE.

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