The United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees says the number of Afghan refugees returning home from Pakistan has been steadily declining in recent weeks. The refugee agency cites the security situation in Afghanistan as one possible reason for the slowdown in refugee returns.

The UNHCR reports more than 300,000 Afghans returned home from Pakistan in July. While this is still a significant number, it is a sharp reduction - about 25 percent - from the number who returned in May.

About 1.3 million Afghan refugees have gone home from Pakistan this year. More than 100,000 others have returned from Iran.

Spokesman Peter Kessler said it is not surprising to see a slowdown in the pace of returns. He said reports of tension in Afghanistan and the decrease in food assistance to returning refugees might be partly responsible for the declining numbers. "The situation in Afghanistan is still in the early days. There is some tension in some corners of the country. The transitional authority is expanding its influence. The refugees may be watching that," he said. "They may begin to decide to wait to go back, maybe next year perhaps, and we are asking, of course, countries in the region and states further afield not to push Afghan refugees home if they feel comfortable to stay where they are."

Mr. Kessler said the refugee agency expects that the number of returnees, particularly from Pakistan, probably will continue to decline over the coming months. Nevertheless, he said it is important for the international community to maintain its support for Afghanistan. "What is most important is that the donor community firmly support the development agencies, that work projects, that development projects start up as quickly as possible," he said. "These more than 1.4 million Afghans that have gone back from Pakistan and Iran have to go back to jobs. They have to go back to health care, a future education for their boys and girls. And, that is for the longer-term agencies to come in and start up projects, so that people have employment and that Afghanistan itself has a future."

UNHCR spokesman Kessler said there must be reasons for Afghan returnees to want to stay at home. Otherwise, he said, they may leave again.