Sri Lanka to release 136,000 war-displaced Tamils

Sri Lanka will release 136,000 ethnic-minority Tamil war refugees on 1 December, allowing the civilians to leave squalid and overcrowded government camps after a half-year detainment, a top official said today.

Some 300,000 war-displaced were forced into camps after fleeing the final months of the government's decades-long war with the separatist Tamil Tiger rebels, which ended in May.

The ethnic minority Tamils are held against their will. More than half were released in recent months amid pressure from rights groups and foreign governments. Authorities say nearly 136,000 people remain detained in the camps, which are guarded by soldiers and strung with barbed wire.

Basil Rajapaksa, a senior adviser to his brother, President Mahinda Rajapaksa, said Saturday the detainees will be free to return to their villages after 1 December, and the camps will be completely closed by January 31.

The announcement came two days after the UN humanitarian chief, John Holmes, pressed Sri Lanka to allow the war-displaced to leave.

Sri Lanka pledged in September to the UN that all civilians would be sent home by the end of January.

Rights groups say the detention is an illegal form of collective punishment for the ethnic group. Access to the camps was heavily restricted.

The government has maintained that Tamils must be screened for rebel ties and detainees' villages de-mined before the camps were closed.

On Saturday, Rajapaksa said the military was given the green light to open camps as no security threats remained. Detainees can settle in areas cleared of mines, he said.

Government troops routed the Tamil Tigers in May, ending their 25-year fight for an independent homeland for the country's minority Tamils. An estimated 80,000 to 100,000 people were killed in the violence.