COLOMBO, Sri Lanka – Sri Lanka said it planned to return most of the nearly 300,000 civilians displaced by civil war to their homes this year as the president called on the country to be magnanimous in victory.
The fate of the ethnic Tamil civilians in the overcrowded, fenced-in camps has caused great concern among the minority community. Aid groups say their access to the camps has been greatly restricted, and human rights groups accuse Tamil militias of abducting children there.
India's foreign minister and national security adviser officials met with President Mahinda Rajapaksa to express their concerns about the humanitarian situation.
In a joint statement, both governments said they had agreed on the urgent need to resettle the civilians in their villages in the north as soon as possible.
"The government of Sri Lanka indicated that it was their intention to dismantle the relief camps at the earliest and outlined a 180 day plan to resettle the bulk of (displaced) to their original places of habitation," said the statement from the president's meeting with Foreign Secretary Shivshankar Menon and National Security Adviser M.K. Narayanan.
India promised help with de-mining the former war zone and rebuilding homes and infrastructure, said the joint statement.
An estimated 280,000 civilians were displaced in the recent government offensive that routed the Tamil Tiger rebels on the battlefields of the north and quashed their more than quarter-century war for a separate state.
The U.N. estimates at least 7,000 Tamil civilians were killed in the final offensive this year and between 80,000 and 100,000 people were killed throughout the war.
With the conventional war over and the rebels' leadership slain, many Sri Lankans have spent days celebrating, especially in neighborhoods dominated the Sinhalese majority.
However, pockets of rebels remain, and the military said it killed eight insurgents Thursday in a battle in the jungles outside the eastern city of Trincomalee.
Many among the Tamil minority worry that the security crackdowns they faced during the war could worsen.
But Rajapaksa called Thursday for Sri Lankans to set aside their differences.
"The celebration of this victory, as deep as it is felt, should be expressed with magnanimity and friendship towards all," he said in a statement.
Rajapaksa has called in the past for a political compromise with the Tamil community, which has long felt marginalized by the Sinhalese. However, it is not clear what sort of power-sharing deal he is willing to offer.
Meanwhile, aid groups and the United Nations have complained that their access to the camps has been severely restricted, and the Red Cross has said aid shipments to the largest camp have been stopped.
U.N. Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon is expected to take up the issue when he travels here Friday.
The Coalition to Stop the Use of Child Soldiers, an umbrella organization of international human rights groups, said it had verified reports that children as young as 12 were abducted from the camps and the nearby town of Vavuniya.
"(Some) have been taken away for ransom and their release has been subsequently negotiated by the parents, either by offering jewelry or cash," said Charu Hogg, Asia manager for the coalition. Others have been abducted by paramilitaries and taken to Sri Lankan army camps, presumably for questioning over ties to the rebel group, which frequently recruited child soldiers, she said.
The coalition, which includes Amnesty International and Human Rights Watch, said Tamil paramilitary groups, which emerged from the rebel movement in the 1980s and aligned themselves with the army, appear to have unhindered access to the camp despite the presence of the military.
The military denied the accusation.
"It's not possible because everyone has been written down and registered, and no one would be able to get anyone out of the camps without it being registered with the police," military spokesman Brig. Udaya Nanayakkara said.
One international aid worker and another human rights advocate said they had heard reports of such abductions but had not seen proof they were taking place. They spoke on condition of anonymity because they feared repercussions from the government.
In a March report, the Colombo-based Center for Policy Alternatives, expressed alarm at the presence of armed groups throughout Vavuniya, and said that they had taken virtual control of parts of the heavily militarized town.
Aid groups have appealed for unfettered access to the camps and to the former war zone to ensure the wounded and displaced are receiving the care they need. But they have been restricted from entering the camps at night, and over the weekend they were told they could no longer speak to civilians or bring vehicles into the camps, aid workers told The Associated Press.