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Thousands of Uzbek Refugees Return Home

United Nations aid agencies report tens of thousands of Uzbek refugees are returning to the homes they fled after ethnic clashes broke out in Kyrgyzstan earlier this month. In light of these large returns, U.N. agencies say they are revising their assistance operations.

The refugee exodus from Uzbekistan is happening so quickly that accurate numbers are difficult to get. So, U.N. agencies are relying upon figures supplied by the Kyrgyzs authorities. They report 70,000 Uzbek refugees have returned so far.

At the same time Uzbek refugees are returning, U.N. refugee spokesman, Adrian Edwards, notes many internally displaced people in Kyrgyzstan also are going back to the homes they fled during the peak of the fighting.

"Both refugees and IDPs [internally displaced persons] have expressed to us mixed feelings about going home," he said. "Although people do want to be reunited with their families, many are worried for their safety and about going back to destroyed, damaged or looted properties. We are concerned about the voluntary nature of returns in some cases. UNHCR's view, and we have stated this before, is that where people are returning, they should be able to do so on an informed basis and in conditions of safety, voluntariness and sustainability."

Edwards says the UNHCR is concerned returnees who find their homes have been badly damaged or destroyed might be on the move again and join the ranks of the internally displaced.

He says many people are moving in with families in their former neighborhoods. He says conditions are crowded and there is an urgent need to further increase assistance.

The U.N. Office for the Coordination of Humanitarian Assistance or OCHA says the situation is evolving quickly.

While more and more refugees are returning to Kyrgyzstan, OCHA spokeswoman, Elizabeth Byrs, says this does not mean the emergency is over.

She says the situation of internally displaced people remains acute and so do the needs. "There are needs of food, hygiene, shelter, medication, food for babies," she said. "All the relief items you need when you have left everything, when your houses have been burned, when you have nothing and some members of the family have maybe disappeared. So, it is still a dire situation and the situation is calm but tense."

On Thursday, human rights group Amnesty International said it has anecdotal evidence that some refugees were forced onto buses to Kyrgyzstan.

This was done, the group said, by refugee camp guards and Uzbek security forces.

Amnesty International said it believes that the situation in southern Kyrgyzstan is still volatile because the Kyrgyzstani government does not have the confidence of the Uzbek population that they will be protected from renewed violent attacks.