The U.N. refugee agency said it is working to get shelter materials to hundreds of thousands of Afghans before winter.

More than 1.3 million Afghan refugees and 400,000 internally displaced people have gone back to the home communities they fled because of war and drought. Thousands of their homes have been destroyed or badly damaged, and winter is only a few months away.

The U.N. refugee agency is working to help them. But agency spokesman Peter Kessler said delivering shelter materials, or kits, to thousands of Afghans living in remote, mountainous areas is difficult and time-consuming.

"Afghanistan, being as vast as it is, the transportation problems being what they are, the fact that the rural areas are so vast and so remote and so poorly connected, getting the kits distributed is really a race against time," Mr. Kessler said.

The shelter kits include wooden beams, frames for windows and doors, and material for latrines. Mr. Kessler said UNHCR is having problems finding experienced partner agencies that can oversee the distribution and construction of the houses for families who need shelter assistance.

"That means that some areas of the country, for example southern Afghanistan where we have seen more than 100,000 Afghans return, we have only identified an NGO, non-governmental organization, capable of distributing some 200 shelters. Clearly, more has to be done in that area. But as well, especially in central Afghanistan where there has been a major level of destruction as well as in the north and where we are still scrambling to find NGOs with staff capable to identify beneficiaries and to get the shelter materials distributed," he said.

The refugee agency had planned to provide housing material for 97,000 families or nearly 500,000 people. But because refugee returns have exceeded expectations, the agency has run out of cash and has been forced to cut its shelter program by one-half.

Mr. Kessler said UNHCR is focusing its housing program on rural areas. He said another U.N. agency, U.N. Habitat, and its partners are helping returning Afghans find housing in city areas.