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U.N. refugee agency pushes Iran to open border

TEHRAN, Iran (CNN) -- The head of the U.N. refugee agency urged Iran's president Wednesday to open the country's borders to help refugees fleeing neighboring Afghanistan.

Ruud Lubbers, the U.N. High Commissioner for Refugees, met with Iranian President Mohammad Khatami and asked that Iran show more flexibility in insisting that Afghans must be assisted in camps on the Afghan side of the border, according to an agency statement.

Iran's border with Afghanistan remains officially closed. Lubbers acknowledged Iran's concerns about security problems that would accompany an influx of Afghan refugees, the UNHCR said.

Lubbers also met with an Iranian Red Crescent Society official and representatives of private aid agencies.

CNN's Amanda Kibel reports on the plight of refugees trying to leave Afghanistan (October 31)

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The UNHCR also said that medical workers at southern Pakistan's Killi Faizo staging camp near the Afghan border are reporting an increasing number of severely sick and malnourished people in Afghanistan. Afghan refugees arriving in Killi Faizo said the health situation in the Taliban-controlled camp at Spin Boldak inside Afghanistan is deteriorating rapidly.

The UNHCR medical workers said refugees who went through the Spin Boldak camp reported cases of severe malnutrition and dysentery among children.

Interviewed by the UNHCR after crossing into Pakistan, the refugees also alleged that the Taliban are preventing people from leaving Afghanistan, including those needing urgent medical attention. The UNHCR repeatedly has expressed concern about the Spin Boldak camp, saying refugees are deprived of sufficient aid, vulnerable to forcible recruitment by the Taliban and positioned too close to military situations.

Meanwhile, a plane carrying about 500 tents and 2,400 sleeping bags, donated by the Swiss government, landed at an airport in Turkmenistan early Wednesday. Two more planes and eight trucks containing nonfood items are expected to arrive in the country.

The UNHCR is stockpiling items in Central Asia that can be used for refugee operations in neighboring countries or in Afghanistan

UNHCR meeting with Taliban envoy

On Tuesday, Lubbers met with the Taliban's ambassador to Pakistan and urged the Taliban to protect aid operations in Afghanistan. He asked Mullah Abdul Salam Zaeef, the Taliban's envoy, to return looted U.N. property and to let the organization go about its work in Afghanistan

Both agreed on the importance of providing aid to civilians to stem the tide of refugees.

"I made it clear to the ambassador that we would appreciate that he does his utmost that our property and activities are respected there," Lubbers told Reuters news agency.

Afghans are the world's largest refugee population. There are nearly 1 million uprooted people within the country, 2 million refugees in Pakistan and 1.5 million in Iran.

Many of the internally displaced Afghans, according to the United Nations, are moving deeper into the countryside in search of food and shelter.

The U.N. World Food Program daily sends trucks across the Pakistan border into Afghanistan's countryside, carrying on average 2,000 metric tons of supplies.

Islamic Relief, one of the nongovernmental organizations coordinating the relief efforts, said 1,000 metric tons of aid is enough to feed 70,000 people.

"What we are doing now with our trucks and our food is bypassing the cities and taking them straight to nongovernmental organizations, who will distribute the food to people in the rural areas," said Heather Hill of the World Food Program.

Pakistan reluctant to open border

Lubbers also met with Pakistan's president, Gen. Pervez Musharraf, to open its borders to Afghan refugees.

Musharraf reiterated his reluctance to receive more refugees.

Lubbers asked Pakistan to issue public assurances to Afghans that those who already have entered the country will not be deported, allowing more to seek aid.

"You give me $100 per individual [per year] and guarantee for all the years in the future -- let them come in," Musharraf said.

The UNHCR has readied 15 refugee camp sites in Pakistan. These can hold up to 150,000 people.

"I understand from his [Musharraf] perspective that he cannot accept a flood of Afghans coming. I accept that. But those people are really in need ... and the process is going too slow. We have to facilitate those who are badly in need because they have no alternative," Lubbers told Reuters.

The UNHCR said testimonies of refugees consistently indicate that the Taliban and opposition are trying to conscript men to fight.

Musharraf also repeated that camps should be set up just inside Afghanistan for refugees.

According to the UNHCR, thousands are crossing into Pakistan, using small roads and unofficial entry points. Officially only the sick and elderly are allowed to cross over into the country.

More than 5,000 people are believed to have crossed in this way last weekend.


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