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UNHCR to Leave Tsunami-Hit Aceh

The U.N. Refugee Agency says it is leaving tsunami-hit Aceh Province at the request of the Indonesian authorities. The agency says it expects its withdrawal to be completed by Saturday.

The U.N. Refugee Agency says it is leaving Aceh because the emergency phase of the huge international relief effort is ending and the long-term reconstruction phase is set to begin.

UNHCR Spokeswoman, Marie-Helene Verney says there are hundreds of international and private aid agencies working in Aceh. She says the Indonesian government has said it would only allow those foreign agencies that are involved in large scale rehabilitation to remain.

"We have been talking with the government and our impression was that they consider that we were not amongst the most needed agencies," Ms. Verney said. "It is true that we have a six-month program there. We have done about three months of it. We are handing over what we have done, so it is not all going to stop. It is being handed over to the government and to other U.N. agencies and, indeed, the NGOs [non-governmental organizations]."

Ms. Verney says the agency is disappointed at having to leave. And, she says, UNHCR representatives have told the Indonesian authorities they are prepared to continue working in the tsunami ravaged province if needed.

The UNHCR's mandate is to protect refugees fleeing violence and persecution. It does not normally respond to natural disasters.

Ms. Verney says the agency got involved at the request of U.N. Secretary-General Kofi Annan who asked the UNHCR to take the lead in providing shelter to 100,000 homeless victims of the disaster because of its experience in dealing with emergency situations.

Aceh rebels have been involved in a long war for independence from Indonesia. The UNHCR, at times, has been at loggerheads with the government over the treatment of ethnic Acehnese refugees who had been forcibly returned. Several years ago, it ran into problems with the Indonesian authorities over the breakaway province of East Timor.

Ms. Verney denies reports that the Indonesian government asked the UNHCR to leave because it distrusts its presence in this volatile area.

"The relations that we have with the authorities on the ground in Banda Aceh for the past three months have really been very good," she said. "So, I do not think this has anything to do with what has happened in the past. We are not the only agency that is going to leave. We might be the first one, but we are not the only one. I mean more people are going to go in the next few weeks. So, we are not being singled out, in other words."

Ms. Verney says the UNHCR has about 3$3 million left for tsunami relief operations in Aceh. She says the agency will ask donors how it should use the funds not already spent. She says the agency would like to use the money for other underfunded operations, such as the one in Sudan. But she says it is up to the donors to decide.