Tuesday, November 10, 2009

Sri Lanka Says 164,000 War Refugees Remain in Northern Camps

By Paul Tighe - Sri Lanka said 164,000 civilians displaced by the civil war with Tamil Tiger rebels remain in camps in the north and the government intends to reduce the number to less than 50,000 by the end of January.

“We are now moving with incremental swiftness” to settle people from the camps, Rajiva Wijesinha, the secretary at the Ministry of Disaster Management and Human Rights, said late yesterday, according to the government’s Web site.

More than 280,000 mainly Tamil civilians have been held in the camps since the army defeated the Liberation Tigers of Tamil Eelam in May, ending the group’s 26-year fight for a separate Tamil homeland in Sri Lanka’s north and east. The U.S. and United Nations are leading international calls for the swift release of the displaced people.

The need to ensure security in the north, the slow pace of clearing mines from former conflict zones and a lack of infrastructure as a result of the war are delaying the program to settle the civilians, Wijesinha said.

“The pressure from the West was quite extensive” to get people out of the camps, he said, adding that countries such as India, Pakistan and China understood the security concerns of the government in Colombo.

“These countries also had questions about the refugees and their rehabilitation, and a political map for the devolution process, but they did not pressure us,” Wijesinha said.

Caught in Fighting

The army defeated the last LTTE forces in a battle on the northeastern coast in May. Tens of thousands of civilians were caught between the rebels and army units.

Sri Lanka rejected comments in September by Navi Pillay, the UN Human Rights commissioner, that the Tamils are being held in “conditions of internment.”

Last month, more than 10,000 people were resettled around Kilinochchi, the northern town where the LTTE had its headquarters. The area was heavily mined and had to be cleared, the government said at the time.

An estimated 1.5 million mines and unexploded ordnance contaminated 500 square kilometers (193 square miles) of the north when the war ended, Lieutenant General Jagath Jayasuriya, Sri Lanka’s army commander, said Oct. 27.

While army units in the north will be reduced in time, they “cannot be removed” because of the danger of the LTTE’s possible resurgence, Wijesinha said. The group’s revival is unlikely without foreign intervention, he said.

The conflict left about 90,000 people dead between 1983 and this year, the secretary said.

Separatist Threat

Sri Lanka is still threatened by separatist forces, President Mahinda Rajapaksa said in a speech Oct. 19. The government’s war on terrorism was based on achieving an “undivided country, a national consensus and an honorable peace,” he said.

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.

While the government is committed to devolving some power to minorities, federalism is ruled out, Wijesinha.

“There is a danger of legitimization of separatism” in a federal structure in a country like Sri Lanka, he said.

Rajapaksa last week named a five-member committee that will investigate a U.S. State Department report on alleged human rights violations in the last weeks of the war, including the shelling of civilians by the army and the LTTE using civilians as hostages. The team consists of lawyers and a university chancellor, the government said at the time.

Sri Lanka has already responded to 99.9 percent of the allegations, Mahinda Samarasinghe, the minister for disaster management and human rights, said last week. The government has described the U.S. report as “unsubstantiated.”

The State Department said last week the abuses listed in the report are based mostly on reporting by the U.S. embassy in Sri Lanka, international organizations and the media and are “credible.”

© Bloomberg

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