Sri Lanka: Priests, nuns, released from refugee camps

Hindu and Catholic priests and nuns displaced by the civil war and living in refugee camps for the past three months have been released.

"We appreciate the gesture and see it as a first step of the state government in moving in the right direction," said Oblate Father Paul Jayanthan Pachchek, director of the Oblate Social Service in Mannar Catholic diocese. "It will definitely give hope to other detainees."

The government ordered the Aug. 26 release of 177 Hindu priests and their families, five Catholic priests and two nuns from camps in Vavuniya in the north.

Father Pachchek said the government must now release other people who are still detained. He said the detainees should be helped to return to their "normal life in their villages."

The government proclaimed the end of decades of civil conflict in mid-May, when its troops overran the last Tamil rebel enclave, but about 300,000 Tamil civilians are still languishing in refugee camps.

The military says it is still screening the people for possible rebel connections.

The priests and nuns were released at the military headquarters in Vavuniya in the presence of Basil Rajapaksa, a government minister and adviser to Sri Lankan President Mahinda Rajapaksa, his brother.

All the freed priests were from northern areas including Jaffna, Kilinochchi, Mullaitivu and Mannar.

Archbishop Malcolm Ranjith of Colombo, Bishop Thomas Savundaranayagam of Jaffna, opposition parliamentarians, rights activists and international organizations have continually appealed to the president to release all civilians and priests.

Conditions in the camps have worsened in recent weeks with the onset of monsoon rains, which have caused flooding.

Pro-government Tamil politician Dharmalingam Siddarthan described conditions in the camps as "a living hell" after visiting recently.

According to media reports, the Sri Lankan government is preparing a 180-day resettlement plan for refugees to return to their homes. It resettled 1,094 people from relief centers on Aug. 5 in what was said to be the first phase of the scheme.

Source: UCAN

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