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By Ranga Sirilal and Shihar Aneez
COLOMBO (Reuters) - Sri Lanka said on Saturday it will allow greater freedom of movement to refugees held in military-guarded camps from next month, after facing pressure to speed up resettlement of thousands of Tamils displaced by war.
The government's announcement comes two days after United Nations Under-Secretary General for Humanitarian Affairs John Holmes voiced concern over the displaced Tamils' freedom of movement.
Sri Lanka is due to hold elections by April and opposition parties are considering backing a possible challenge by the victorious army chief against President Mahinda Rajapaksa, who they blame for the failure to resettle many refugees after the end of the 25-year war in May.
Rajapaksa's brother and head of the refugee resettlement body, Basil Rajapaksa, said the government will allow greater freedom of movement by December 1 for 130,000 people who fled the final phases of the war.
He told inmates of Manik Farm, the largest camp in the northern district of Vavuniya, that the president intended to release all of them by January 31 -- as the government had pledged to UN Secretary General Ban Ki-moon.
SEEKING TAMIL SUPPORT?
Sri Lanka's top general Sarath Fonseka, who quit amid speculation he could run for president with opposition backing, has voiced concern over the current situation of the refugees.
Two political analysts said the government's move aimed to win the support of minority Tamil parties, which have so far refused to ally with Rajapaksa because he ignored their repeated calls for a cease-fire during the intense fighting.
According to Ministry of Disaster Management data, the government had released over 150,000 Tamil war refugees as of Saturday, leaving 127,000 people still in the camps.
The United Nations welcomed Saturday's announcement and urged Sri Lanka to continue to work with the UN and other organisations to help return people still displaced by the war.
"These are steps which the UN has long been pressing for in its intensive engagement with the authorities in Sri Lanka, including during the Secretary-General's own visit in May," a statement from Ban's spokesman said.
Rights groups have said people in the camps were treated poorly and were being kept there longer than necessary.
Britain also welcomed the Sri Lankan government decision.
"Granting genuine freedom to decide their own future will be a major relief for those still trapped in the camps," British International Development Minister Mike Foster said.
"Humanitarian agencies must now be allowed to give them the help they need in all the places that they return to."
(Additional reporting by Louis Charbonneau in United Nations; Editing by Dominic Evans)

Reuters