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Page last updated at 16:09 GMT, Thursday, 22 October 2009 17:09 UK

Thousands leave Sri Lankan camp

Sri lankan refugees returning home (Pic: Dinasena Rathugamage)
Some refugees are being allowed to return home

Nearly 6,000 Tamil refugees have been released from Sri Lanka's main camp for war-displaced people, officials say.

It is the first time refugees have been allowed to return to areas formerly controlled by the Tamil Tigers.

Those who left Menik Farm are among almost 40,000 people to be resettled over the next few weeks, officials say.

It would be the largest single batch freed since the Tamil Tigers were defeated in May. Some 250,000 civilians are housed in military-run camps.

The authorities have been criticised for the slow pace of resettlement.

Pressure

Rehabilitation Minister Rishat Badurdheen told the BBC that 5,700 left the camp on Thursday and another 36,000 would be resettled "over the coming weeks".

Sri Lankan Tamils in displacement camps look for transport to get back to their villages after being released by the authorities in Vavuniya on Sept 11, 2009

Those who left Menik Farm on Thursday included Tamils from areas previously controlled by the rebels.

It is the first time people have been allowed to return home to areas once held by the Tigers. About 15,000 refugees have been freed up to now.

The BBC's Anbarasan Ethirajan says the government's announcement comes at a time when it is under increasing international pressure to resettle the tens of thousands of people displaced in the final stages of the conflict.

A US state department report on the final months of the conflict released on Thursday cited incidents committed by both sides which it said may have constituted crimes against humanity.

The report - based on first-hand accounts from both sides of the conflict - said the majority of incidents occurred in official no-fire zones.

The Sri Lankan government said the report appeared to be unsubstantiated and that the armed forces were scrupulous in protecting civilians.

The UN has previously raised concerns about human rights violations in the war, but the US is the first country to publish an independent third party report.

De-mined

Sri Lanka's government earlier said it intended to release 80% of the refugees held in camps by the end of the year.

Map

Most of those are in Menik Farm, which the BBC's Charles Haviland recently visited. He says the camp has now swollen to cover some 10 zones with a population of a quarter of a million.

Many refugees in the camp complained about poor food and sanitary conditions.

One said that after being displaced 15 times by the civil war in three years, and being rescued by the army, she was now sharing a tent with 24 people.

"I don't know how to live like this," she said, simply. "Please send us to a good place, or to our homes."

Another woman lamented that inhabitants were falling sick while children remained uneducated.

The government has previously defended itself from human rights groups, many of whom have criticised the slow pace of the releases.

It argues that it needs to weed out rebels from the camps and ensure that areas in the north are de-mined before refugees return home.

Aid agencies have repeatedly expressed concern over conditions in Menik Farm - near the north-central town of Vavuniya - and have warned that flooding and poor sanitation will become worse when monsoon rains, which are due at any time, eventually arrive.



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