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Rapid refugee resettlement a must for Sri Lanka - U.N.

COLOMBO (Reuters) - The United Nations on Tuesday said a violent incident in Sri Lanka’s refugee camps underscored the urgency in stepping up the “very slow” pace of resettlement of thousands of Tamils displaced at the end a 25-year war.

An outside view of the U.N. headquarters during the 63rd United Nations General Assembly in New York September 23, 2008. REUTERS/Eric Thayer/Files

Walter Kaelin, the U.N. Secretary-General’s representative for refugee rights, finished a three-day visit to the Indian Ocean island last week, where he toured camps where more than 260,000 people are being held.

After he left on Saturday, at least two refugees were wounded when soldiers fired on a group the military said was trying to escape a camp on Saturday.

“The use of firearms to control a group of internally displaced persons trying to move from one camp zone to another that resulted in injuries to two persons raises serious human rights issues,” Kaelin said in a statement on Tuesday.

Kaelin said the incident “underscores how interning people in large and overcrowded camps not built for prolonged stays is in itself a factor detrimental to security.”

Sri Lanka is under heavy pressure from the West to resettle the more than 260,000 people being held in camps since the end of a war with the Tamil Tiger separatists in May.

Of particular worry, Kaelin said, was impending monsoon rains which will likely flood the present camps not built for long-term stays.

U.N. Secretary-General Ban Ki-Moon has pressed for urgent resettlement, and has himself been criticised for not taking a tougher line with the Sri Lankan government.

Sri Lanka says it first must weed out potentially thousands of Tamil Tigers hiding among the refugees, and demine the former war zone.

“I remain particularly concerned about the slow pace of identifying those in the camps who do not pose a threat to security and the lack of transparent criteria in this regard,” Kaelin said.

Kaelin said he was impressed by Sri Lanka’s “massive demining and reconstruction efforts” on the northwestern coast, and welcomed its pledge to return 70-80 percent of the refugees home by the end of the year, but urged fast progress.

“Immediate and substantial progress in restoring freedom of movement for the displaced is an imperative, if Sri Lanka is to respect the rights of its citizens and comply with its commitments and obligations under international law,” he said.

Rights groups accuse the government of treating refugees poorly and detaining them against their will for longer than necessary.

The government has said it had released 15,000 refugees since the end of the war in mid-May, while United Nations data show nearly 12,000 have been sent home.

Some said to have been released have in fact been sent to other camps nearer their home areas.