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Sri Lanka frees priests from war camps

August 28, 2009

AFP – Sri Lanka frees priests from war camps

COLOMBO — Sri Lanka on Wednesday freed nearly 600 Hindu and Catholic priests who were held in internment camps with ethnic Tamils displaced by fighting between troops and separatist rebels, officials said.

The clergy were allowed to leave the camps in the northern district of Vavuniya, where 300,000 inmates are detained under tight security to be screened for remaining Tamil Tiger rebels.

“We are taking measures to free the remaining members of the clergy at the earliest,” said P.S. Charles, the senior civil servant in the area.

A total of 571 Hindu priests, six Catholic priests and two nuns were allowed out, she said, adding another 220 were still in the camps.

International and local rights groups have expressed concern about the welfare of the civilians held in the cramped internment centres, which are officially described as “welfare villages.”

Recent rains have overwhelmed the sewerage systems and contaminated wells, raising fears of disease outbreaks.

Monsoon rains expected in October are likely to worsen conditions.

The United States, which led criticism of civilian casualties in the final phase of Colombo’s offensive against the Tamil Tiger rebels, has also been vocal in its concern for the displaced survivors.

The United Nations said more than 7,000 civilians may have perished in the five months before the war ended in May with the Tigers’ defeat.

Rains earlier this month destroyed nearly 2,000 makeshift shelters at the Manik Farm resettlement complex in Vavuniya district.

Independent media and foreign monitors have been barred from the camps.

The government promised UN Secretary General Ban Ki-moon, who visited the island in May, that 80 percent of the refugees would be returned home before the end of this year.

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