Quarter of a Million Sri Lankans Face Two Years in Camps

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by
The Guardian/UK

Quarter of a Million Sri Lankans Face Two Years in Camps

Government is unrepentant about squalid conditions, saying Tamil Tigers must be weeded out from amongst civilians

by
Gethin Chamberlain in Colombo

A displaced Tamil woman and her baby at a camp in Vavuniya district. (Photograph: Pedro Ugarte/AFP/Getty Images)

Many of the quarter of a million people held in internment camps in Sri Lanka face up to two years behind razor wire, a government official said today.

The
official from the defence ministry said Sri Lanka was not prepared to
let the UN dictate terms over the length of time people could be held
in the camps.

A UN spokesman, Gordon Weiss, said he was "shocked" at the revelation, which ran counter to previous government assurances.

"It
was our understanding that the government was to return 80% of the
people to their homes by the end of the year, or at least try to," he
said.

The UN, Britain and human rights groups have been pressing
the government in Colombo to release people from the camps as soon as
possible.

The news came as the Red Cross suspended delivery of supplies to displaced civilians after the Sri Lankan government blocked access to camps it controls in the country's north.

"There
is no access to these camps at this particular moment," said a Red
Cross official in Geneva amid growing alarm about the plight of tens of
thousands of Sri Lankans who arrived at the government-run camps with
little more than the clothes on their backs.

The UNHCR refugee
agency said: "Restrictions to enter the IDP [internally displaced
people] sites imposed by the authorities over the weekend are hindering
UNHCR's ability to deliver assistance to the IDP sites (a vast area
spanning 4,000 acres [1,600 hectares]) in the district of Vavuniya,
where a majority of the displaced population has been accommodated.
This has undoubtedly hindered our ability to deliver assistance to the
population in need."

The government says it needs to hold the civilians until it can establish whether or not they are Tamil Tigers.

A
second official revealed that hardcore rebels were being held and
interrogated in a secure unit in the south of the country. The defence
ministry has refused to discuss their fate. Thousands of other former
fighters are being held in what the government describes as
"rehabilitation centres".

Save the Children claims that at least a quarter of pregnant and breastfeeding women in the camps are acutely malnourished.

The
UN secretary general, Ban Ki-moon, is due to arrive in Sri Lanka on
Friday to press the government to work towards reconciliation after 26
years of war and to allow humanitarian groups access to the camps.

But
Lakshman Hulugalle, the Sri Lankan defence spokesman, said the UN had
to accept it was up to the government to decide when people were
released. "The UN can't dictate terms to us. They can always make a
request but the UN hasn't asked us to release people," he said. "The
government has a plan to resettle them. Let these agencies come and
join us."

A free and independent press is essential to the health of a functioning democracy

Hulugalle said the government had already resettled
almost 200,000 people after the east of the country was liberated from
Tamil Tiger control.

"We were able to resettle them within nine
months. This operation will take a little longer - one and a half to
two years," he said.

He said some elderly people who had been
able to show they had close relatives to look after them had been
released. But he said many of the others would have to stay behind.

"All won't be there for two years, but some will be there for two years," he said.

Responding
to criticism of conditions inside the camps, where detainees have told
the Guardian they are short of food, water and medicines, he said: "You
can't expect five-star hospitality in an area like that.

"What we
are providing are the basics - security, food, health and schools.
These are basic. You can't expect an Oxford college."

Hulugalle
said the government had turned down an offer of 750 previously -used
blankets from the Hilton hotel group because people did not want to be
treated as second-grade citizens. "They are not beggars," he said.

Hulugalle
said many Tamil Tigers had dressed in civilian clothes during the
fighting and that made it more difficult to identify them once they
laid down their arms.

However, Suhada Gamalath, the man in charge
of the jails where the majority of Tamil Tigers who surrendered are
being held, said about 100 fighters were being held in a prison in
Boosse in the south of the country. He said they would eventually be
brought to trial and could face up to 20 years' jail if convicted of
murder. Sri Lanka has the death penalty but it has not been used for
many years.

Gamalath said there were between 2,000 and 3,000
former Tamil Tigers imprisoned, with up to 60 more arriving every day.
Most had given themselves up, he said. The total included about 250
children below the age of 18, he said, with some as young as 14.

Today was declared a public holiday by the government to celebrate victory in the 26-year-long war with the Tamil Tigers.

State
television continued to show pictures of the body of the rebel leader,
Vellupillai Prabhakaran. The defence ministry said the body would be
burned or buried at an undisclosed location without a funeral.

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