Sri Lanka gave permission Tuesday to nearly 127,000 Tamil refugees to leave squalid and overrun government camps where they have been detained since the country's civil war ended six months ago, an official said.
Some 300,000 war refugees were forced into the camps after fleeing the war zone in the final months of the government's decades-long fight with the separatist Tamil Tiger rebels, which ended in May.
The ethnic-minority Tamils were held against their will, surrounded by barbed wire and guarded by soldiers. The government maintained that the Tamils had to be screened for rebel ties and that land mines had to be removed from their villages before they could return.
Rights groups have called the detention an illegal form of collective punishment for the ethnic group.
More than half were released in recent months amid pressure from rights groups and foreign governments, and the remaining 127,000 could apply to leave starting Tuesday under a plan announced by the government last month.
After registering with camp officials, the refugees are free to leave, although those whose villages have yet to be cleared of mines will not be allowed to resettle, military spokesman Brig. Udaya Nanayakkara said. The camps will be closed completely by Jan. 31.
The registration process is quick: Nanayakkara said refugees need only inform camp officials where they intend to go and how long they want to stay.
Nanayakkara said nearly 7,200 people so far sought permission to leave, many of whom were headed to find family members after being separated for months by the fighting.
"I am very happy to go out and see the outside," said Mano Amma, 53, as she prepared to get onto a bus to visit her relatives in Vavuniya, about 25 miles (40 kilometers) from her camp.
She had been confined to the camp since May. She and her husband and daughter are planning to stay with the relatives for 10 days and then come back.
Ganeshan Moorthi, 34, was walking along with his wife and infant child to see his mother in a nearby camp.
"I haven't seen my mother since April, this year. I am very happy to go out, specially to see my mother," he said.
Authorities say de-mining work has been stepped up so refugees can be sent to their home villages.
Sri Lanka pledged in September to the United Nations that all civilians would be sent home by the end of January.
The U.N. has welcomed the government's decision to close the camp, but has said it is waiting to find out how the registration process for departing detainees works.
Government troops routed the Tamil Tigers in May, ending their 25-year fight for an independent homeland for the country's minority Tamils. An estimated 80,000 to 100,000 people were killed in the violence.
Associated Press writer Sanath Priyantha in Vavuniya contributed to this report.