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Operation Begins to Return Thousands of Displaced to South Sudan

The United Nations, with the support of other aid agencies and local authorities is beginning an operation to help tens of thousands of people return to homes they fled in southern Sudan during the country's long north-south civil war. Lisa Schlein reports for VOA from U.N. offices in Geneva, the first group of 300 began returning home Saturday.

The International Organization for Migration (IOM) is transporting the internally displaced. Spokeswoman Jemini Pandya says more than 500,000 in Khartoum State have registered to go home. She says the aim is to help up to 150,000 people return to South Sudan in the coming months.

"The selection for return this year is based on where the final destinations are located in high priority areas that have been designated by both the U.N. and the Sudanese governments," she said. "And, whether an area is deemed suitable for return is dependent on various issues, such as the level of security, humanitarian access and whether existing communities can actually absorb returnees."

Pandya says IOM operations and medical staff are escorting the convoys. When the displaced return home, Pandya says, the World Food Program (WFP) will distribute three-month food rations for each household. The returnees also will be given household items to help them restart their lives.

The IOM plans four more convoys in the next 10 days. Pandya says the return operation will accelerate when the rains stop in March and road access improves in South Sudan. She says this return operation is just one aspect of the agency's planned work in Sudan this year.

"We have appealed for about $62 million for our operations in the country. And, assuming that we get all or nearly all of it, we will be able to provide re-integration and infrastructure support as well as all these return operations. We also will be able to continue tracking and assisting spontaneous IDP [Internally Displaced People] movements. And, also, we have already talked about encouraging and assisting the return of qualified Sudanese, if they can contribute to the socioeconomic recovery of the South, and also to help carry out the voluntary return of operations of Sudanese refugees."

A peace agreement two years ago ended two decades of civil war between the Muslim North and Christian and animist South. About 4 million people were internally displaced. Some 340,000 refugees remain in three neighboring countries, Uganda, Ethiopia and Kenya.