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Sri Lanka war refugees leaving military camps

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Large numbers of displaced people piled into buses, able to travel to Vavuniya for the first time since the end of the war

Thousands of displaced Sri Lankans have begun leaving military-run camps opened up by the government in the north.

The general in charge of the biggest camp told the BBC people were free to leave temporarily - after giving their details so they can be monitored.

The camps house about 130,000 people driven from their homes during the offensive against the Tamil Tiger rebels earlier this year.

Sri Lanka has drawn criticism for holding people against their will.

There have been severe restrictions on access to the camps - set up for people fleeing the war zone during the government's final assault against the Liberation Tigers of Tamil Eelam (LTTE).

The decades-long conflict was declared over on 19 May.

Transport out of the camps is a problem but people seem to be very happy to leave
Sri Lankan official in Vavuniya

International media organisations - including the BBC - have not been allowed to visit the camps in recent weeks.

But Sri Lanka's Minister for Foreign Affairs, Rohitha Bogollagama, told the BBC there were "no restrictions" on access for journalists and they would be able to visit the camps on Wednesday.

The government has been screening people in the camps for possible links with the rebels.

On Tuesday a senior official in the town of Vavuniya near the biggest camp, Menik Farm, said about 6,000 people had already left the camps.

"Transport out of the camps is a problem but people seem to be very happy to leave," he told AFP news agency.

'Tracked down'

Large numbers of displaced people piled into buses, able to travel to Vavuniya for the first time since the end of the war.

Map of Sri Lanka

People told the BBC they had permission to stay away for up to 15 days and to go anywhere during this time - although parts of the former war zone are still off-limits.

Many are visiting relatives or getting medical check-ups.

Maj Gen Kamal Gunaratne, who runs Menik Farm, said anyone trying to leave permanently would be "tracked down".

Many people doing aid work in these camps have felt ambivalent about giving assistance, says the BBC Charles Haviland in Colombo, with some seeing them as "open prisons".

Our correspondent says that with northern Sri Lanka devastated and mined, some of the displaced will want to stay on in the camps for now.

However those who want to escape will not find it easy to do so, owing to heavy security presence in the region, our correspondent adds.

Foreign Affairs Minister Rohitha Bogollagama:"We want to encourage more people to go back home"

The government says all the camps will be shut down by the end of January 2010.

In the past month, it has stepped up the formal process of returning people to the villages and the numbers living in the camps have halved.

The United Nations has welcomed the closure announcement, but has said it is waiting to find out how the registration process for departing detainees will work.

UN humanitarian chief John Holmes, who visited northern Sri Lanka last month, said returnees face "major problems in terms of shelter", and it would be years before normality returned to the region.

President Mahinda Rajapaksa called early elections for January - two years early - in an effort to take advantage of his popularity after the crushing the Tamil Tigers.

He is being challenged by Gen Sarath Fonseka, a former army chief who is at odds with the government over who should take credit for the military victory.



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