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Sri Lanka returns military-held lands in former war zone in conciliatory step toward Tamils

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COLOMBO, Sri Lanka — Sri Lanka has started releasing private land occupied by the military during the country's 26-year civil war, in a major step at reconciliation with minority ethnic Tamils.

The government said in a statement Wednesday that it intends to release 800 acres (323 hectares) of land in the country's east before the end of April in addition to the 425 acres (172 hectares) in the north already handed over to the owners by President Maithripala Sirisena on Monday.

Continued military occupation of private lands has remained a contentious issue since the end of the civil war in 2009.

Thousands of acres (hectares) of land were taken over the military for their so-called high security zones in the country's north and east since the 1990s. Despite the end of the war the military continued to take over lands citing security expansions under former President Mahinda Rajapaksa.

After his January election victory over his hard-line predecessor Rajapaksa, Sirisena has taken a number of steps in an attempt to heal the wounds of the conflict.

Sirisena also promised a domestic inquiry into allegations that both sides committed war crimes in the final stages of the war, a promise that prompted the U.N. Human Rights council to postpone by six months a report on wartime rights violations by both the government and Tamil rebels.

Government troops crushed the Tamil Tiger rebels, who fought to create an independent state for Tamils, in May 2009.

An earlier U.N report said up to 40,000 ethnic Tamil civilians may have been killed in just the final months of the conflict. There is no clear estimate on the number of people who died in the decades-long war.

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