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Afghanistan: Refugees Return From Iran, Depart For Pakistan

United Nations relief officials say a large number of Afghan refugees living in Iran have returned to western Afghanistan in recent days. At the same time, officials are concerned about reports of thousands of people leaving the southern Afghan provinces of Helmand and Kandahar for the Pakistani border because of the weakening position of the Taliban.

United Nations, 16 November 2001 (RFE/RL) -- Afghan refugees are steadily moving back into western Afghanistan from Iran, while at the same time thousands are fleeing across the southern border into Pakistan.

United Nations relief officials say the movements come in response to the weakening position of the Taliban and do not yet signal any massive population shift. But they say there is heightened concern about the vulnerability of Afghan civilians throughout the country.

The United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees reported on 15 November that 1,300 Afghans returned home through Dogharoun, Iran's main border crossing with Afghanistan. It was the largest single-day return since the end of August.

Many of the returnees -- mainly ethnic Tajiks and Hazaras -- told the refugee agency they had come to see for themselves developments in the western city of Herat, which was captured by the Northern Alliance a few days ago. They said they were leaving their families behind in Iran until they were more certain of the situation.

An official with the UN refugee agency in New York, Parviz Mohajer, told RFE/RL that, prior to 15 November, Afghans had been returning to Herat by the hundreds. But he said this is normal behavior for refugees after a dramatic change in events: "At this moment, we don't see any big flow back, but we are also preparing in general for a flow, which we expect to happen if things move in the right direction in two or three months."

At the same time, UNHCR officials on 15 November expressed concern about a possible new outflow of refugees into Pakistan from the southern provinces of Kandahar and Helmand. They say several thousand people have already crossed into Baluchistan in Pakistan from various points along the border. Among these refugees are reported to be pro-Taliban fighters.

Pakistan is already home to about 2.5 million Afghan refugees. An additional 130,000 refugees have assembled at camps just inside the Pakistani border since the U.S.-led military attacks on Taliban positions began on 7 October. Iran hosts about 1.5 million Afghans.

Relief officials don't expect any massive return to Afghanistan if the Taliban are routed in the near future because of the special circumstances of Afghan refugees. Many of these refugees, they say, have seen too many power changes in the past 20 years of upheaval to suddenly feel it is safe to return home.

Still, refugee flows can be unpredictable, says Oliver Ulich, a spokesman in the UN's Office for the Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs: "It will be spontaneous, and it will happen whenever those people subjectively feel it's safe and subjectively think that they will be able to survive wherever they're going. And that's not always easy for outsiders to predict."

UN agencies are beginning to return international staff to facilities in some of the country's main cities. Five international staffers from the World Food Program arrived on 15 November in Faizabad, the capital of the northeastern province of Badakhshan. The office there is to provide aid to about 750,000 people, including hundreds of thousands of people in the Panjshir Valley.

Other international relief staff are expected back in the capital, Kabul, as soon as today. The aim is to provide continuity to address the chief concern of all agencies -- mass starvation.

An estimated 6 million people inside Afghanistan are considered at risk, and the early onset of winter in some places has added to the complications in getting supplies to trapped, weakened civilians.

Ulich says food delivery is the priority: "The primary overarching concern would be food security and then, of course, basic services, as well. In a lot of places, the health-care system has completely disintegrated, and one of our basic services would include sanitation, I guess, as well."

The World Food Program is alarmed that it has not been able to move food into southern and eastern Afghanistan for the past three days from two main hubs in the Pakistani cities of Quetta and Peshawar. UN spokesman Fred Eckhard said the flight of pro-Taliban forces appears to be disrupting the delivery of food.

"The main fear from the Peshawar drivers is that the road into Kabul is an exit road for the Taliban, and this route is flanked by other factions who wish to seize control, making it dangerous and unsafe to travel."

The UN food agency says 28 trucks carrying 1,000 tons of food had to turn back from the border on 15 November after unconfirmed reports that the convoy had been ambushed and all its supplies lost.

Meanwhile, food continues to be delivered into northern Afghanistan from Tajikistan, Uzbekistan, and Turkmenistan.