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Latest update : 2009-12-01

Sri Lankan officials say thousands of civilians held in detention camps since the military offensive against Tamil rebels earlier this year have been freed. Many whose villages were wiped out during the fighting are expected to remain displaced.

AFP - Thousands of Sri Lankan civilians locked in state-run camps during the island's ethnic conflict walked free Tuesday, officials said, ending mass detentions that were criticised by the UN.

Men, women and children poured out of the Manik Farm complex in the northern district of Vavuniya, but they were expected to remain based in the camps as many of their villages have been destroyed.

"Today more than 1,000 families consisting of about 6,000 persons have already exited the camps," N. Thirugnanasampanther, a senior civil servant in Vavuniya, told AFP.

"Transport out of the camps is a problem, but people seem to be very happy."

About 130,000 ethnic Tamil civilians who were kept in detention after government troops defeated separatist forces in May were given freedom of movement, as the government declared the camps "open".

Tamil civilians displaced by the fighting had remained under detention because the government said it needed to screen them for former Tiger rebels.

Conditions inside the tightly guarded facilities have been criticised by the United Nations and international aid groups, with three families often forced to share one small tent meant for six people.

Drinking water and toilets were scarce and many of the temporary shelters flooded during rains.

"We have started a new phase of our re-settlement programme from today," said G.A. Chandrasiri, the governor of Northern province. "We have turned all the IDP (internally displaced people) camps into open camps."

Chandrasiri said the inmates were free to leave and return at will, and would be given time to decide whether to return to their villages -- many of which were flattened in the fighting and are still surrounded by minefields.

"They can go to their villages, visit relatives and come back to the camps if they wish. They can stay in the camps until they arrange accommodation elsewhere," Chandrasiri said.

The camps held 280,000 people at their peak in May, when the military finally wiped out the leadership of the Tamil Tiger rebels after decades of bloody warfare.

Under intense international pressure, the government has promised to close down all the camps by the end of January.

The UN had already welcomed the government's decision, announced last month, to allow the inmates freedom of movement.

The New York-based Human Rights Watch also backed the release, but warned that the government was still holding 11,000 Tamils as Tiger rebel suspects.

It said action must be taken either to release them or bring them to court.

The government has said a large number of Tamil Tigers in detention would be provided with vocational training to re-integrate into society.

Date created : 2009-12-01