Lawmakers say some 3,000 Sri Lanka war refugees evicted from villages by government

COLOMBO, Sri Lanka (AP) — Sri Lanka has barred some 3,000 villagers who fled the bloody final months of the country's civil war from returning to their homes in the north, possibly so the military can set up camps in the area, ethnic Tamil lawmakers charged Monday.

The villagers were among 300,000 civilians detained in camps for months following the government's defeat of Tamil Tigers rebels in mid 2009, ending 25 years of civil war and the rebels' bid for an independent Tamil homeland in the north.

The government said detaining the refugees — almost all of them ethnic Tamils — was necessary to weed out rebels hiding among civilians and also to ensure that northern areas are cleared of land mines before people returned.

However, the refugees were allowed to leave the camps in December and the government says most of them have now been resettled in their villages. Officials say there are about 33,000 remaining in camps, but they are allowed to freely move out and come back.

On Monday, Suresh Premachandran, a lawmaker from the opposition Tamil National Alliance, said about 3,000 people have been barred from returning to their villages. He and two other lawmakers last week visited Kilinochchi, Mullaitivu and Mannar districts, where the final battles raged.

In some villages, hundreds of people who were earlier allowed to resettle have now been evicted and sent back to schools that serve as refugee camps. Some are taking shelter under trees, Premachandran told reporters.

"The people were highly distressed and were literally rolling on the ground and weeping," the Tamil National Alliance said in a statement. "The army had forcibly loaded their belongings onto a tractor and was bringing it to the school when we got there."

He said the party has heard that the military was preparing to acquire some land for establishing semi-permanent military quarters, or cantonments. The party sought government clarification, but there has been no response, he said.

Premachandran also asked the government to allow the people to live in their villages as promised.

There was no immediate comment from the government, but government spokesman Keheliya Rambukwella said last week that the resettlement process has to be carried out cautiously due to the presence of an estimated 1.5 million land mines in the region.

He said the government has given priority for demining, and so far 275,000 mines have been removed since the war's end.

The Tamil rebels fought for a separate state, claiming decades of discrimination by the Sinhalese majority. The U.N. says between 80,000 and 100,000 people were killed during the war.

Sri Lanka has also faced growing international criticism for not examining alleged rights abuses committed during that time.

According to U.N documents, more than 7,000 civilians died in the last five months of the conflict and rights groups have accused the government and rebel forces of deliberately targeting civilians.

The U.N. has also appointed a panel of three experts to look into alleged rights abuses in the war, despite protests from the Sri Lankan government.