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INTERVIEW – Sri Lanka steps up return of war-displaced – U.N.

[Reuters, Thursday, 5 November 2009 10:29 No Comment]

Sri Lanka has begun allowing tens of thousands of war-displaced Tamils to return home after months of being held in government-run camps, the head of the U.N. office responsible for emergencies said.

Almost 300,000 civilians were forced from their homes and moved into the cramped camps in the north of the Indian Ocean island during the final months of Sri Lanka’s 25-year-old civil war against separatist Tamil rebels which ended in May.

Zola Dowell, head of U.N. Office for the Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs (OCHA), said that from August to the end of October around 90,000 people moved back to their areas of origin, with 30,000 returning just in the last 10 days.

"We welcome the speeding-up of the return process," Dowell told Reuters in a telephone interview late on Wednesday from Colombo. "Over the last week, between 2,500 and 4,000 people a day are being transported back."

The international community has for months been pressing authorities to accelerate the process of resettlement, saying that keeping people there too long could breed resentment and that the poor conditions demanded they be moved faster. But the government, which has pledged to resettle around 80 percent of the displaced by the end of the year, said it first needed to weed out former Liberation Tigers of Tamil Eelam (LTTE) cadres and remove tens of thousands of land mines.

MINE RISKS

Most civilians are being moved back to their home areas in Jaffna in the extreme north of the island, while others are going back to Mannar in the northeast, Vavuniya in the north and parts of the east.

"People are being moved back to their districts of origin, but due to the ongoing mine risks, many were not able to immediately go back to their actual homes," Dowell said.

She said initially, most returnees are being moved to schools and churches and other buildings, and that people did have relative freedom of movement. Nonetheless, aid workers are not allowed to have a full-time presence there.

"As people go back to their villages, we would like to be there with them so that we can ensure that things like food distribution points are there and water and sanitation provisions are adequate," Dowell said.

The government and the aid community have a strained relationship, owing to Sri Lanka’s wariness that LTTE cadres could infiltrate the organisations as they did in wartime.

Sri Lanka insists it can handle the humanitarian tasks itself, and has limited aid agency access to refugee camps on the grounds that it does not want to threaten the security the country fought hard to win.

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