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UN Concerned About Afghan Refugees' Safety - 2001-11-13

The United Nations refugee agency UNHCR says it is very concerned about the safety of some 6,000 Afghans in a camp in Taleban-controlled territory near the Iranian border. The UNHCR says it is investigating unconfirmed reports that the Northern Alliance has captured the area where the camp is located.

The U.N. refugee agency says it sent a team Tuesday morning to the Milak border crossing in Iran. The team is investigating reports of overnight fighting in the Afghanistan border town of Zaranj and the nearby village of Makaki, where the camp sheltering some 6,000 Afghans refugees is located.

UNHCR spokesman Ron Redmond says eyewitnesses report there was a brief fight between advancing Northern Alliance forces and Taleban troops. But he says reports that the area was taken overnight by the Northern Alliance are unconfirmed, and he says no reports of casualties so far have been received. "This morning, the Iranian Red Crescent Society sent in four ambulances to Makaki, a camp they set up more than a month ago and continue to run together with [Medecins sans Frontieres, or Doctors Without Borders]," he said. "Aid workers have, however, been withdrawn from the camp, which has been known to have significant weaponry and armed Taleban men in and around it."

While many Afghans are trying to flee into Iran, Mr. Redmond says other Afghans currently there are returning home. On Monday, he reports almost 900 Afghans in Iran returned to Afghanistan. He says many of these people are migrant workers who are concerned about the welfare of their families and are going home to make sure they are safe. Others are from ethnic groups that back the Northern Alliance. Mr. Redmond says, with the alliance troops advancing, these refugees are far more willing to return home. "Others are refugees from areas where, ethnically, they would not have a problem," said Mr. Redmond. "In other words, if the Northern Alliance is taking territory in Allied ethnic areas, then obviously these people would feel safe in going back."

The UNHCR reports the Northern Alliance's capture of areas in northern Afghanistan has not triggered any large-scale movement of people from that region, which Mr. Redmond says is a good sign. It will allow humanitarian organizations to assist them in their homes.