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UN Envoy to Press Sri Lanka to Free Refugees in Camps (Update1)

[Bloomberg, Tuesday, 15 September 2009 07:59 No Comment]

United Nations Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon is sending his political chief to Sri Lanka today to press the government to let refugees leave camps where they have been held since the defeat of Tamil Tiger rebels in May.

“We are very concerned about the pace of progress,” Lynn Pascoe, the envoy, said in New York yesterday. Sri Lanka has made commitments “including on the movement of people out of camps and including an eventual political process and some kind of accountability mechanism.”

Ban, who visited the south Asian island nation in May, telephoned President Mahinda Rajapaksa yesterday and spoke “quite openly and straightforwardly about what has to be done,” the UN said on its Web site.

Sri Lanka says its plan to return refugees to their homes by December depends on the clearing of mines from former conflict zones and establishing security in the north. Rains last month flooded tents and caused temporary sewage systems to overflow in the camps, prompting calls from the U.S. and the UN for the swift release of the estimated 280,000 displaced people before the monsoon season begins in the next couple of months.

The UN can ask Sri Lanka to speed up the process, “but we have to complete de-mining first in these areas,” U.L.M. Haldeen, secretary in the Ministry of Resettlement and Disaster Relief Services, said today from the capital, Colombo.

Sri Lanka has resettled 21,000 refugees in the four districts of Jaffa, Trincomalee, Batticaloa and Ampara, Haldeen said. In all the “relief villages,” the government has provided water, electricity, education and sanitation facilities, he said in a phone interview.

Workers Detained

Pascoe said he intends to discuss the detention of two UN workers arrested in the north in June and the recent expulsion of a spokesman for the UN Children’s Fund, the UN said.

Pascoe said he and his team will work on “what are critical issues out there.”

Rajapaksa said earlier this week there are about 220,000 refugees and the government intends to resettle about 50,000 by the middle of this month.

The president, in an interview with France’s Le Figaro newspaper published on the government’s Web site, said Sri Lanka wants the West to help it rebuild after the civil war rather than criticizing the country over its human rights record and the treatment of refugees.

UN Probe

A special UN envoy last week called for an independent investigation into whether a video appearing to show the army executing nine people is authentic. Sri Lanka’s government has said it will cooperate with any UN probe and that the video is a fake.

The army defeated the Liberation Tigers of Tamil Eelam in May, ending the group’s 26-year fight for a separate homeland in the north and east of the country.

Rajapaksa said earlier this month he wants to achieve reconciliation with the Tamil community and bring permanent peace to the country. Tamils make up almost 12 percent of Sri Lanka’s population of 20 million people. Sinhalese account for 74 percent, according to a 2001 census.

[Full Coverage]

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