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UNHCR: Refugees Returning from Iran, Fleeing Southern Afghanistan

The United Nations refugee agency (UNHCR) says thousands of Afghan refugees have been returning home from Iran, but it says thousands more are fleeing southern Afghanistan into Pakistan because of fighting and lawlessness. Meanwhile, other U.N. agencies are trying to expand the distribution of medical supplies and food in the capital, Kabul.

The United Nations refugee agency says the number of Afghans fleeing the region between Kandahar and Spin Boldak area has nearly tripled, with over a thousand refugees arriving on Thursday at the agency's facilities in Chaman inside Pakistan.

Peter Kessler of the UNHCR says some 12,000 Afghans arrived in recent weeks and others may be passing thorough the frontier at unpatrolled areas and filtering into places like Quetta in Pakistan. "The Afghans who have arrived in the Chaman area, speak about increasing insecurity in the Kandahar-Spin Boldak area. There are concerns about lawlessness, fears of banditry along the road between Spin Boldak and Kandahar. These are desperate people. These are people who have no other way to get any further from the border," Mr. Kessler explained.

The World Food Program (WFP) says the continuing insecurity in southern Afghanistan has made most of the area off-limits to food distribution. It says it is trying to feed 17,000 vulnerable Afghans in camps close to Spin Boldak. Officials also have plans to start providing food to more than one million residents of the Afghan capital, Kabul very soon.

WFP spokeswoman Christiane Bertiaume says the agency has now employed over 2,000 Afghan women to find out the food needs of households headed by women. "Those 2,400 have been hired to go, knock door by door to go inside, check what are the needs and register the people. Give them a register card so they come and pick up the food," she said.

Ms. Bertiaume says the WFP hopes to start school feeding programs for boys and girls once Afghanistan's educational system is operating.

Meanwhile, local health authorities in Kabul have called on the World Health Organization (WHO) to lead the rebuilding of medical services in the city. Spokesman Gregory Hartl says the WHO has examined a number of hospitals in the Kabul area.

"We have done an assessment of 72 hospitals and looked at the conditions there and found that of the 72, 47 were listed as fair in the services they were able to provide. Twenty-two were rated at poor and the other three were rated as being good so there is still a range of what is available in Kabul. Obviously health services have decreased to a significant extent," he said.

The WHO says it will make HIV-AIDS counseling and awareness an important element in rebuilding Afghanistan's health services.