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UN Readies for Massive Return of Afghan Refugees - 2001-11-20


United Nations relief agencies said they are preparing for a large scale return of Afghan refugees from Iran to their country. They also said that continuing instability in southern Afghanistan is hampering aid work.

The World Food Program said it has managed to bring 52,000 tons of food into Afghanistan over the past four weeks to feed some six million people.

But WFP spokeswoman Christiane Bertiaume said the challenge will be to continue to provide the same amount of food over the coming winter months. She said that insecure conditions inside Afghanistan make getting aid in difficult and have prevented WFP from reaching some two million Afghans.

"Because of insecurity inside the country, last week we have not been able to dispatch food from Pakistan, which is a very important hub. But since yesterday we have started back from Peshawar to Kabul and to the central highlands. But we have not yet been able to start again from Quetta because the corridor from Quetta goes through the Kandahar region, which is still very insecure," she said.

Taleban forces in Afghanistan continue to hold out in their two last remaining strongholds, Kunduz in the north and Kandahar in the south, despite mounting pressure to end their resistance.

The U.N.'s refugee agency, for its part, said it has sent a 15 truck convoy of relief supplies from Iran's border with Afghanistan. It is the first jointly organized convoy between the U.N. High Commissioner for Refugees and the Iranian Red Crescent since the withdrawal of aid agencies from Afghanistan in September.

Both the UNHCR and the International Organization for Migration said they are speaking with Iranian authorities about the voluntary return of more than two million Afghan refugees. UNHCR spokesman Ron Redmond said large scale Afghan repatriation could begin as early as next spring, security permitting. "I would hope with the return of peace and stability inside Afghanistan that we would see a sizeable portion of those people going back, but conditions have to be in place in order to do so. We want to lay the groundwork now," he said.

Jean-Philippe Chouzy of the International Organization for Migration said that many Afghans are returning home by choice and that relief groups are trying to help to manage their safe return. "There are still problems in Afghanistan. There is still drought, winter is coming. You still have lots of unexploded ordinances, you have cluster bombs littering the country. So all these problems have to be solved before any large scale repatriation can start," he said.

Mr. Chouzy, however, denied that the Iranian government is putting any pressure on aid agencies to repatriate Afghan refugees quickly.