Colombo: Sri Lanka's president promised on Friday to send nearly 300,000 Tamil war refugees held in military-run camps back home in four months.
A UN official welcomed the pledge and warned that any delay in resettlement would undermine efforts to reconcile with the country's estranged minority.
UN Undersecretary General for Political Affairs B Lynn Pascoe also urged the government to investigate allegations of human rights abuses during the civil war with the Tamil Tiger rebels.
HUMANITY'S SAKE: Lankan Foreign Minister Rohitha Bogollagama and UN Undersecy. General B L Pascoe in Colombo.
President Mahinda Rajapaksa made the promise at a meeting with Pascoe amid international criticism of the government's treatment of those displaced by the war.
Rajapaksa told Pascoe he expects that new demining equipment will allow all the ethnic Tamil civilians in the camps to be resettled by the end of January, a statement from the president's office said.
Sri Lanka has said it can't send the displaced people home until their villages are cleared of mines and can't release those in the camps because of fears some may be rebel fighters.
Pascoe, who visited the camps on Thursday, welcomed Rajapaksa's commitment.
"I found this quite encouraging ... I think that would be a very positive step and look very much forward to it becoming a reality," he said.
He said the UN is concerned about the "lack of freedom of movement and the closed nature" of the camps.
"As the situation currently stands in the camps there is a real risk of bringing resentment that will undermine the prospect of political reconciliation in the future," he said.
Pascoe also asked the government to start an investigation and hold accountable those found guilty of human rights violations during the final phase of the war.
Scores of civilians died in the fighting as the rebels mounted their last stand on a shrinking strip of beach, with both sides accusing each other of ignoring civilian safety.
"Coming to grips with the past is difficult. Sweeping it under the rug could be a tempting shortcut, but it can have a high price at a later time," Pascoe said.
"We feel that ideally, the Sri Lankans should carry out a national process of truth-seeking and accountability. But at the same time, the process has to be serious, independent and impartial."
An opposition ethnic Tamil lawmaker also welcomed the government's decision on resettlement but said it was doubtful that demining could be completed before next month's monsoon rains, which can scatter the weapons.
Mavai Senathiraja, a lawmaker for the Tamil National Alliance party, said the government must move the people away from low-lying, congested camps into better buildings before the rains.
About 280,000 ethnic Tamil civilians have been detained in the camps since the island nation's civil war ended four months ago.
Human rights groups say the government is illegally detaining the war refugees. Aid groups say the camps are overcrowded and prone to disease, and fear monsoon rains will create a public health crisis.
The government previously had promised to resettle 80 per cent of the camp residents by the end of the year, a feat demining experts and other aid workers said appeared unrealistic.
Instead, they called on the government to allow the camp residents to live with relatives or host families until they can return home.
The government said last week it had already resettled about 20,000 people in areas cleared of mines.
But Senathiraja accused the authorities on Thursday of simply shifting hundreds of these people to other camps, while thousands of others promised freedom were never moved at all.
The government denied the allegation.
Government troops routed the Tamil Tigers in May, ending their 25-year fight for an independent homeland for the country's ethnic minority Tamils after decades of discrimination by successive governments controlled by majority ethnic Sinhalese.
Some 80,000 to 100,000 people were killed in the violence.