US praises resettlement of Sri Lankan refugees

AP News
Posted: Dec 09, 2009 11:01 AM

A U.S. envoy praised the Sri Lankan government Wednesday for making progress in resettling hundreds of thousands of ethnic Tamil civilians detained since the end of the country's civil war.

The comments come on the heels of a U.S. Senate report that said Washington needs to increase engagement with Sri Lanka or risk ruining ties with the island nation.

Robert O. Blake, U.S. assistant secretary of state for South Asia, told reporters that he saw evidence of progress when he visited Manik Farm in northern Sri Lanka, where most of the roughly 100,000 remaining displaced civilians live.

The U.S. withdrew military aid to Sri Lanka in the last years of its 25-year civil war because of human rights concerns. It was also among the countries to pressure Colombo after the war ended six months ago to expedite the release of the civilians, whose numbers in the squalid camps peaked at some 300,000.

Rights groups say the detention is an illegal form of collective punishment for the ethnic group. The government has maintained that Tamils must be screened for rebel ties and detainees' villages de-mined before the camps can be closed.

Blake said that since the end of war human rights have improved in Sri Lanka. But he noted that leaders must take steps to reconcile with the country's ethnic Tamil minority and share political power with them.

The U.S. Senate Foreign Relations Committee warned in a report released Monday that neglecting Sri Lanka as it emerges from civil war could result in a shift toward China and other countries that place "greater value on security over freedoms."

The report said Sri Lanka sees ties with the U.S. "to be on a downward trajectory" and the rift is leading to Colombo's realignment toward Myanmar, China, Iran and Libya.