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Sri Lanka Tamil refugee camps 'to be opened next month'

Sri Lankan refugees in a camp in Vavuniya, October 2009
Many Tamils have been freed, but more than 130,000 remain in camps

Sri Lanka says people held in special camps since the end of the conflict with Tamil Tiger rebels will be allowed out for short periods from next month.

An aide to the president also confirmed a pledge to close the facilities, which house more than 130,000 people.

They were set up in the country's north for Tamils fleeing the final stages of the civil war, which ended in May.

Sri Lanka has drawn strong international criticism for holding people in the camps against their will.

The latest government announcement was made by the special adviser to President Mahinda Rajapaksa, his brother Basil, on a visit to the largest camp, Menik Farm.

On Thursday UN humanitarian chief John Holmes urged Sri Lanka to allow them to leave, following a visit to the camp.

Denied access

Addressing a group of displaced people, Mr Rajapaksa said that from 1 December the camps would no longer be closed sites. People will now be free to leave them for a day or two at a time, to visit friends and relatives, for example.

SRI LANKA CONFLICT TIMELINE
Map
1976 - LTTE formed
1983 - First attacks by Tamil Tiger rebels; start of 'First Eelam War'
Feb 2002 - Government and rebels sign ceasefire
2004 - 2008 - Violence mounts
Jan 2008 - Government pulls out of ceasefire agreement
May 2009 - Government declares victory against Tigers

Although they will not be able to leave permanently, he reiterated the government's pledge to resettle those displaced by the end of January.

About 300,000 Tamils fled the war zone during the government's final offensive against the Liberation Tigers of Tamil Eelam (LTTE) earlier this year.

Those displaced - many of whom had been held as human shields by the rebels - were forced into hastily built camps.

Criticised for keeping them there against their will, the government insisted that incarceration was necessary while the refugees were being screened for possible links with the rebels.

It has also said that more than 1.5m mines must be cleared and basic infrastructure needs to be in place to allow people to return home.

The UN, diplomats and charities have criticised the screening process, saying it is not transparent.

'Not transparent'

The barbed-wire enclosures are run by the military, and many of those displaced had complained about poor food and sanitary conditions.

Opposition parliamentarians in Sri Lanka have also protested about not being allowed access to the camps.

The BBC's Charles Haviland in Colombo says the government had been sensitive to the criticism, and within the past month has markedly stepped up the pace of releases.

Many people are returning to devastated villages in depopulated countryside, much of it mined, our correspondent adds.

In May the Sri Lankan army defeated the Tamil Tigers, who had been fighting since the mid-1970s to carve out a separate nation in the Sinhalese-majority island.



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