Sri Lanka's Defense Ministry says it will offer a general amnesty to tens of thousands of military deserters. The move comes as the government negotiates with Tamil Tiger rebels to end the nation's two-decade-long ethnic conflict.
The Defense Ministry is offering a legal discharge to more than 50,000 soldiers listed as deserters.
The bulk of desertions took place during the last two decades when heavy fighting raged in the country with Tamil guerrillas fighting for an independent homeland in the north and the east. Tens of thousands of soldiers died in the civil war. Many others were wounded.
The rate of desertion escalated in recent years, with more than 4,000 soldiers failing to report back for duty every year. Desertions continued unabated even after the government signed a truce with the rebels more than a year ago.
The government said the deserters pose a serious social problem, with many of them turning to crime to support themselves while in hiding.
But Army spokesman, Sanath Karunaratne, said the truce and subsequent lull in fighting has prompted authorities to offer them a new beginning.
"These people could not lead a peaceful life in society, and they could not get themselves employed because, as per the law of the land, no one can employ the army deserters. So to overcome this problem, the Ministry of Defense and the Army headquarters decided to give these people the legitimate discharge from the Army," he said.
Army deserters will be discharged without court martial and a select few - who quit in the last three years - will have the option to rejoin the Army.
Sri Lanka's Army chief, Lionel Balagelle, said discussions are now underway to extend the amnesty to the Air Force and Navy. The two services also have a list of nearly 10,000 deserters.
The military found it extremely difficult to attract recruits while the war raged. But Army commanders hope a pause in the civil war will reverse that situation. The total strength of the Sri Lankan military is estimated at about 150,000.
Meanwhile, Norwegian truce monitors have secured the release of a government soldier and a policeman who were in Tamil Tiger rebel custody - ending a tense standoff.
The monitors had accused the Tamil Tigers of undermining their authority after the rebels failed to free the two men despite several requests. They were finally freed when the chief truce monitor, Trond Furuhovde, traveled to the rebel-held town of Killinochi to meet top guerrilla leader Vellupillai Prabhakaran.