The UN refugee agency and its partners are mounting a huge humanitarian operation to help more than 170,000 internally displaced people in Sri Lanka. These people recently fled to government-controlled camps near the Tamil conflict zone in the northern part of the country.

Sri Lankan government troops are in the last throes of a brutal battle with the Tamil Tiger rebels. The United Nations estimates between 50 and 80,000 civilians remain trapped in the conflict zone. But, more than 170,000 others have managed to escape the area, most in the last 10 days.

UN refugee spokesman, William Spindler, says the internally displaced people are being accommodated in 38 sites in four districts of the north and east of the country.

"While thousands of displaced people continue to arrive to Vavuniya, Jaffna and Trincomalee, others are returning to their homes in the first government organized return operation in northern Sri Lanka for years," said Spindler. "The area to where they are returning, Musali in Mannar district, was for a long time the frontline in the fighting between government forces and LTTE rebels?UNHCR welcomes these returns as a positive development. While the number of those returning to their homes is small it is an important starting point and we hope that returns to other areas in Northern Sri Lanka will also be possible soon," he said.  

The UNHCR reports some 400 people who had been displaced two years ago returned to their village on Thursday. And, it says some 3,000 other homeless people have registered to return to 15 villages in Musali over the coming weeks.

As part of its stepped-up operations for more than 170,000 displaced Tamils, the UNHCR has sent a second team of emergency experts to Sri Lanka. They are expected to arrive Friday. The team of four includes specialists on community services, protection and other essential field functions.

The International Organization for Migration also its ramping up its response to the crisis in the Vavuniya area. Spokesman Jean-Philippe Chauzy says public health specialists are being deployed there.

"We have got tent shipments coming in from China, from Dubai. About 4,000 tents will be flown in over the next 10 days. That tent shipment will complement the temporary shelter assistance that we are providing in the Vavuniya area. That being said, the needs are still enormous, considerable whether it is in terms of shelter, sanitation or health care, water and sanitation," he said.

Chauzy says this assistance will only slightly ease the pressure. He says IOM cannot cope with all the people who are in the government-controlled camps and need help. He says more shelter, more sanitation, more food, more health care- in fact more of everything is needed.