COLOMBO, Sri Lanka — Sri Lanka's military said Thursday that it would eliminate 13 army camps in the former northern civil war zone and give the land back to the original owners, a move that comes ahead of key elections in the region.
Sri Lanka has faced rising international criticism for failing to demilitarize the north since the quarter-century-long civil war ended in 2009 when government troops crushed the separatist Tamil rebels, who were fighting to create a separate state for minority ethnic Tamils.
Troops will be removed from 13 camps in the Jaffna peninsula and the locations, "for which the army paid rent, will be handed over to the original owners," said military spokesman Brig. Ruwan Wanigasooriya.
The decision marks a change in the government's stance on demilitarizing the north. President Mahinda Rajapaksa last year rejected international calls to remove military camps in the region, saying his government was not prepared to undermine national security by removing them because remnants of the Tamil rebels remained active.
The move also comes after the government called for provincial council elections in the Tamil-majority Northern Province, once the theater of bloody battles between government troops and the rebels. A date for the vote — the first council elections in the province since the end of the war — has not been set, but it is likely to be in September.
Wanigasooriya, however, said the decision to remove the camps was not related to the elections, saying the military has been gradually reducing the presence of troops. He said more than two-thirds of land once occupied by the military has been handed back to its owners since the war's end and that the number of troops has been reduced to less than 15,000.
More than 30,000 troops occupied the Jaffna peninsula during the height of the war.
Since the war ended, the government has been under intense international pressure to keep its promise to politically empower the Tamils by strengthening the power of the provincial councils, which are the highest level of local government.
Sri Lanka is also facing criticism for failing to promote ethnic reconciliation and probe the allegations of war crimes by government troops during the final stage of the war.