A U.N. agency is warning the return of hundreds of thousands of Sudanese refugees following the successful conclusion of a peace agreement could lead to a further spread of HIV/AIDS in Sudan.

An assistant advocacy officer with the Sudan office of the U.N. Population Fund, Filippo Larrera, says his and other U.N. agencies are worried that Sudanese refugees returning to Sudan might bring back AIDS and HIV, the virus that causes AIDS.

"It is clear that with all the returnees coming from the bordering countries where the HIV/AIDS rate is much higher than in Sudan, the likelihood that the HIV/AIDS rate in Sudan will increase," Mr. Larrera says.

Mr. Larrera said many Sudanese refugees are living in what he calls the HIV/AIDS belt, which includes Kenya and Democratic Republic of Congo, and could carry the virus with them back to Sudan.

Mr. Larrera was responding to a U.N. news agency special report that quotes aid workers and residents as saying that southern Sudan is vulnerable to a surge in HIV infection because of the returning refugees and other factors. Those factors include poverty, low school enrollment, a rudimentary health system, and the powerlessness of women and girls combined with cultural practices such as female genital mutilation, polygamy and widow inheritance.

But the World Health Organization official in charge of HIV/AIDS in Kenya, Dr. Joel Kangangi, says his concern is that people who have been living in Sudan all along - and not the returning refugees - may be the ones to spread the disease.

"The refugees who are here who are now supposed to go back - there were programs which we were teaching and training people how to protect themselves from HIV/AIDS," Dr. Kangangi says. "There are so many organizations. But in the war-torn zone area, there were no programs. So what would be (the) fear is that the people going there, they might mix with people who have no knowledge. It is the other way around."

Dr. Kangangi says AIDS awareness programs, voluntary testing and counseling centers, and other initiatives should be set up in Sudan as soon as possible so that the virus does not spread to the returning refugee population.

The Sudanese government and the south's main rebel group, the Sudan People's Liberation Army, are close to signing a peace deal to end 21 years of war between them.

If the deal is signed, hundreds of thousands of Sudanese refugees living in Kenya, Democratic Republic of Congo, Uganda, Ethiopia, and other countries are expected to return.

About 2.6 percent of Sudan's population is infected with HIV.

Meanwhile, Sudanese Health Minister Dr. Ahmed Bilal Osman blasted the WHO for a report it released last week saying that 70,000 people died in Darfur since war erupted there early last year. Sudan News Service quotes the health minister as calling the report "baseless and totally untrue."