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S.Lanka displaced still concern US despite progress

August 9, 2009

Reuters – S.Lanka displaced still concern US despite progress

* Colombo says to resettle 75,000 by end of August

* U.S. seeks end to detention, faster resettlement

WASHINGTON, Aug 7 (Reuters) – Sri Lanka has indicated it plans to release by the end of August 75,000 of the 280,000 Tamil civilians confined to displacement camps since the close of the country’s civil war, a senior U.S. official said on Friday, welcoming the news but urging Colombo to move faster.

Eric Schwartz, U.S. assistant secretary at the Bureau of Population, Refugees and Migration, visited the camps late last month and said the figures were “encouraging news.”

But the United States, which has provided aid to the camps and is ready to offer more to help the displaced Tamils go home, was dismayed so many were being held against their will, he said.

Refugees and other displaced people are normally “agents of their own destiny when it comes to return,” using their own judgment about when they can go home after conflict, said Schwartz.

“That’s true everywhere and it should be true in Sri Lanka but it’s not, because these populations are confined to camps,” he told Reuters in an interview.

“People shouldn’t be confined against their will,” he added.

More than 280,000 civilians have been held in sprawling camps in the north of the Indian Ocean island since May, when government troops crushed the separatist Liberation Tigers of Tamil Eelam to end a 25-year war.

Rajiva Wijesuriya, secretary of the Sri Lanka Ministry of Human Rights and Disaster Management, last week rejected criticism by human rights groups, saying the government had to address worries that former Tamil Tiger fighters could be hiding in the camps.

Schwartz said Colombo should find a better way to address the legitimate security issues.

“The way to manage those concerns is not to confine the entire population,” he said.

Sri Lanka has pledged to resettle the bulk of the displaced within six months but it could be difficult because of the thousands of land mines that have to be cleared across former Tiger territory. (Editing by Peter Cooney)

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