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Sri Lanka lets war refugees move freely | Reuters

[Reuters, Tuesday, 1 December 2009 16:36 No Comment]

Sri Lanka’s government on Tuesday let thousands of refugees temporarily leave camps where they have been held since the end of a 25-year war with the Tamil Tigers, the military said.

More than 9,100 people took advantage of the government’s relaxation of restrictions on freedom of movement, which had been kept in place despite widespread condemnation by the United Nations and rights groups since the war ended in May.

"From today onward, there is free movement to attend to work or visit relatives and they can come back to the camps until they are resettled," military spokesman Brigadier Udaya Nanayakkara said.

About a third of those who left on Tuesday returned to the camps by nightfall, he said. Those leaving must fill out a form but otherwise have no other restrictions, he said. The island still has a heavy security presence, despite the end of war.

"If it is their wish, all 127,000 in the camps can leave today," Nanayakkara said.

The government had until now resisted pressure to let people out, saying they first had to be screened to ensure they did not have links to the Tamil Tiger rebels.

The refugees’ situation has been a political issue since the end of the war, but increasingly so since former army commander General Sarath Fonseka said he would challenge incumbent President Mahinda Rajapaksa at an election due on Jan. 26.

Although Fonseka was frequently criticised by opposition parties as he led the army to victory, they have since courted him as a common candidate for a patchwork coalition designed solely to defeat Rajapaksa.

Fonseka raised eyebrows in his final speech to the army when he urged the refugees be freed. In earlier comments, he said they needed to be held for security reasons and was roundly criticised for saying minorities should not "demand undue things".

In May, Sri Lanka crushed the Tigers and ended their quarter-century war to create a separate nation for the Tamil ethnic minority on the island of 21 million people, three-quarters of whom are from the Sinhalese ethnic group.

As the military advanced relentlessly in the final year of the war, the Tigers had with them nearly 300,000 Tamils which the United Nations and others said were being kept as human shields. Most were brought by force, although some backed the Tigers. (Editing by Jeremy Laurence) ((bryson.hull@thomsonreuters.com; +94-11-237-5903; Reuters Messaging; bryson.hull.reuters.com@reuters.net)) ((If you have a query or comment on this story, send an email to news.feedback.asia@thomsonreuters.com))

Sri Lanka lets war refugees move freely | Reuters

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