Sri Lanka’s president promised Friday to send nearly 300,000 Tamil war refugees who are being held in military-run camps back to their homes in the next four months, the government said.
President Mahinda Rajapaksa made the pledge at a meeting with U.N. Undersecretary General for Political Affairs B. Lynn Pascoe amid international criticism of the government’s treatment of those displaced by the civil war with the Tamil Tiger rebels.
Mr. Rajapaksa told Mr. Pascoe he expects that new demining equipment will allow all the ethnic Tamil civilians in the camps to be resettled by the end of January, a statement from the president’s office said.
Sri Lanka has said it can’t send the displaced people home until their villages are cleared of mines and it can’t release those in the camps because of fears some of them may be rebel fighters.
An opposition ethnic Tamil lawmaker welcomed the government’s decision but said it was doubtful if demining could be completed before next month’s monsoon rains, which can scatter the weapons.
Mavai Senathiraja, a lawmaker for the Tamil National Alliance party, said the government must move the people away from low-lying, congested camps into better buildings before the rains.
Mr. Pascoe visited the camps on Thursday to obtain a firsthand view of the camp conditions.
About 280,000 ethnic Tamil civilians have been detained in the camps since the island nation’s civil war ended four months ago.
The Human rights groups say the government is illegally detaining the war refugees, who are from the country’s minority Tamil population. Aid groups say the camps are overcrowded and prone to disease, and fear monsoon rains expected next month will create a public health crisis.
The government previously had promised to resettle 80 percent of the camp residents by the end of the year, feat demining experts and other aid workers said appeared unrealistic. Instead, they called on the government to allow the camp residents to live with relatives or host families until they can return home.
The government said last week it had already resettled about 20,000 people in areas cleared of mines.
But Senathiraja accused the authorities on Thursday of simply shifting hundreds of these people to other camps, while thousands of others promised freedom were never moved at all.
The government denied the allegation.
Government troops routed the Tamil Tigers in May, ending their 25-year fight for an independent homeland for the country’s ethnic minority Tamils. Some 80,000 to 100,000 people were killed in the violence.