90,000 displaced in Sri Lanka conflict return home: UN

GENEVA, November 6, 2009 (AFP) - About a third of those displaced during the conflict between Sri Lanka government and the Tamil Tigers have returned home over the past three months, the UN refugee agency said Friday.

"Some 90,000 internally displaced people have returned to their villages in Sri Lanka’s north and east over the past three months, under the ongoing return plan of the Sri Lankan government," said Andrej Mahecic, spokesman for the office of the UN High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR).

These include 39,000 people who have headed home in the last two weeks "as part of the government’s efforts to accelerate the process," he added.

In addition, 16,500 people, including the elderly, pregnant women and people with disabilities, have been released from camps and are now staying with host families, said Mahecic.

Some 274,000 people were displaced during the conflict and following the recent returns, 163,000 people still remain in camps where "conditions are deteriorating," said Mahecic.

Since the state-run camps are tightly guarded and international observers and aid agencies have not been given free access, Colombo has come under international pressure to quickly allow the displaced to go home.

The Sri Lankan government said it would allow resettlement once minefields were cleared and the refugees had been screened for rebel Tamil Tiger fighters.

In a bid to "accelerate" the mine clearing process, Mahecic said the UNHCR is providing five demining machines to Sri Lanka.

"Humanitarian demining and the removal of unexploded ordnance are prerequisites for delivery of humanitarian assistance, early recovery and development in conflict affected areas," he said.

Sri Lankan troops destroyed the leadership of the Liberation Tigers of Tamil Eelam in May, ending one of Asia’s longest-running insurgencies.

The Tamil Tigers, as they were popularly known, had been campaigning since 1972 for a separate homeland for the island’s Tamil minority and drew support from members of the overseas Tamil community.

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