Police have forced hundreds of ethnic Tamils to leave the Sri Lankan capital as part of an effort to prevent attacks by separatist fighters.
Armed police stormed Tamil-majority areas of Colombo overnight forcing guests at low-budget hostels into buses at gunpoint, residents said on Wednesday.
Sirithunga Jayasuriya, chairman of the Civil Monitoring Committee, said: "These Tamils have been denied their right to live in Colombo.
"Those who are involved in illegal activity should be arrested and punished through the court, but this is like ethnic cleansing and we strongly condemn it."
The defence ministry confirmed that the evictions had taken place, but said the move was necessary to prevent bombings by the Liberation Tigers of Tamil Eelam (LTTE).
Nine people were killed in explosions in and around Colombo, a city of 600,000 people, last month.
The ministry said: "Investigations have also confirmed that those responsible for these brutal killings have hatched their brutal plans and executed them from these lodgings."
|"It is OK for the LTTE to indulge in this sort of ethnic cleaning because they have no moral responsibility, but a government can't behave like this"|
Tamil political leader
It said 376 people, including 85 women, were returned to their homes in Vavuniya and Jaffna in the north, and Batticaloa and Trincomalee in the east on seven buses. Police sources, however, said that about 50 buses were used.
Police announced last week that they would provide transport for Tamils to return to their homes in the northern and eastern regions of the country unless they could prove they were employed in Colombo.
One man who was forcibly removed from a hostel told a local radio station by mobile phone that he had been woken at 3.45am and moved while still wearing his night clothes.
They were not even allowed to use the toilet, the man said as his bus was being escorted out of Colombo by police.
Dharmalingam Sithadthan, a Tamil political leader, said: "This operation is a very bad example.
"It is OK for the LTTE to indulge in this sort of ethnic cleaning because they have no moral responsibility, but a government can't behave like this," he said.
|More than 300 Tamils were evicted |
from low-budget hostels [AFP]
He said the police move reminded him of how the Tamil Tigers had evicted thousands of minority Muslims from the northern peninsula of Jaffna in 1990.
Thousands of Tamils arrive in the capital every month in the hope of obtaining passports to travel abroad for employment or to secure political asylum overseas.
Tamils are required to obtain permits from the police to travel to the rest of the country under a visa system put in place to prevent Tamil Tiger separatists getting into Colombo.
Meanwhile, Yasushi Akashi, Japan's special peace envoy, was visiting Vakarai, a territory in the Batticaloa district which was captured by government forces from Tamil Tiger rebels a few months ago.
The government has started resettling Tamil civilians there who have fled the fighting.
On Wednesday, Akashi met Mahinda Rajapakse, the president, and Palitha Kohona, the foreign secretary, in an attempt to breathe life into the peace process.