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Countries pledge $600 million to help Afghans

UNHCR cautions refugee numbers could be high

GENEVA, Switzerland (CNN) -- As international aid workers toil around the clock preparing for a crush of displaced Afghans, the United Nations wrapped up a two-day meeting in Geneva, Switzerland, to discuss how to handle the situation.

The U.N. High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR), Ruud Lubbers, warned the number of refugees could be staggering.

Lubbers welcomed pledges of financial and other support from the 22 countries participating in the "Afghan Forum," held in response to the U.N.'s $584 million donor alert for Afghanistan. The U.N. undersecretary-general for humanitarian affairs, Kenzo Oshima, said the U.N. has received commitments for $182 million, with an additional $28 million pledged to humanitarian agencies outside the donor alert.

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Oshima added an additional $406 million in pledges would have to be approved and allocated by the various governments involved.

More than 3.5 million Afghan refugees are already in neighboring Pakistan and Iran, but Lubbers said without a global commitment to avoid a large-scale displacement, as many as 1.5 million more could flee to neighboring countries.

"I think it's still possible," he said of minimizing population movements, "but I still have fear that big numbers will come."

The UNHCR said Saturday work is under way in northern Pakistan for up to 20 refugee camps to accommodate more than 250,000 people. The first six sites are expected to be ready within 10 days -- five in Kurram and one in Khyber, capable of housing up to 60,000 people. The UNHCR said an additional 14 sites, to house up to 200,000 people, should be ready in two weeks.

Along the borders of Afghanistan, the movement of displaced Afghans has slowed, with some even returning to their homes in Afghan cities such as Jalalabad, Kandahar and Kabul.

Journalist Kamal Hyder, in eastern Afghanistan, told CNN on Saturday that people are not as panicked.

"Many people who fled the cities to the sanctuary of Afghanistan's rural (areas), found life very difficult there and decided to go home," Hyder said. "I think more and more people are beginning to understand that the war is not going to be directed (at) Afghanistan's civilian population."

In an interview with CNN on Saturday, Larry Thompson of Refugees International said, "The most immediate need is getting additional food into Afghanistan. So that has to be the top priority."

Thompson said civilian airdrops pose an expensive and difficult proposition. He offered the following scenario to illustrate his point: "If you're going to have 50-pound sacks thrown out of the door of the aircraft, you've got to have someone on the ground clearing the people out of the area where they're going to fall so they don't hit people."

In neighboring Iran, a Boeing 747 landed Saturday with a load of donations from Britain. More than 800 tents, 300 rolls of plastic sheeting, tarpaulins and 45 rolls of rope were donated. The charter flights was the second into Iran this week, and the fourth UNHCR sent to the region in the same period.



 
 
 
 



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