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Monday, Jun. 15, 2009
Ambassador: Sri Lanka working to resettle Tamils
By DIONNE WALKER - Associated Press Writer
ATLANTA -- Sri Lankan leaders are working to quickly resettle some 300,000 ethnic Tamil civilians displaced by civil war, the country's ambassador to the U.S. said Monday, echoing the claims of a government criticized for alleged human rights abuses.
Ambassador Jaliya Wickramasuriya, speaking to an audience in a police-guarded library at Georgia State University, denied allegations that ethnic Tamils are being held in welfare camps against their will and insisted that "the truth of Sri Lanka is not always the news stories you see." He said the government is working to get the Tamils back into their homes within six months.
"There are really two Sri Lankas," he told a heavily student audience gathered in a campus library. "One is the country you read or hear about in America, Europe and Canada ... the other is the Sri Lanka I just visited, which is more dynamic."
His speech, sponsored by the Center for Human Rights and Democracy at the downtown Atlanta campus, came a week after a Sri Lankan think tank filed court action accusing Sri Lankan officials of detaining displaced civilians in camps and denying them fundamental rights.
Ethnic divisions are rife in the country, where leaders have been reluctant to allow much media coverage after the Tamil Tiger rebels were defeated in their effort to establish an independent state. The United Nations has said last month's bloody offensive, which ended some 25 years of civil war on the island, left more than 7,000 civilians dead.
About 300,000 ethnic Tamil civilians who escaped the battlefields are being detained in 40 centers, according to the Center for Policy Alternatives, a Sri Lankan public policy group. The group appealed to the country's Supreme Court last week, saying civilians are being held in overcrowded "welfare" camps enclosed by barbed wire. Authorities say the restrictions are necessary because rebels are still hiding among civilians in the camps.
Monday, Wickramasuriya put estimates in the camps at closer to 270,000 to 290,000 people. He said they appeared well-fed when he recently visited the island nation of about 21 million.
However, releasing them to return to their homes isn't simple, he said, because rebels have peppered the countryside with explosives.
"It would be criminal to send people back to villages and land riddled with mines," said Wickramasuriya, adding the threat is also why journalists haven't been welcomed to the conflict area.
He challenged critics to shift focus from writing negative articles about the country toward trying to help. The ambassador added that leaders are focused on clearing mines and planning for elections.
"Help with demining, help with building houses - we don't want people to just come criticize," he said.
For more information :
U.S. State Department Report on Human Rights in Sri Lanka
United Nations, Office of High Commissioner for Human Rights Sri Lanka Reports
Press Release from Sri Lanka’s Embassy to the United States
CNN background stories on Sri Lanka