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Iran, UNHCR discuss repatriation plan for Afghan refugees

GENEVA, Switzerland (CNN) -- Officials of the U.N. High Commissioner for Refugees are meeting with Iranian authorities in Tehran Tuesday to discuss the development of a repatriation plan for Afghan refugees.

Agency officials said that organized movements more than likely will start in early spring, security permitting.

During the winter, the UNHCR hopes to work with a committee comprising UNHCR, Iranian and Afghan representatives to prepare comprehensive repatriation plans.

There are now 2.3 million Afghan refugees in Iran. Afghans have been the world's single largest group of refugees for 19 years in row, due to war, famine, drought and political repression, according to the UNHCR.

In other developments, Iranian authorities have approved an aid convoy to Herat, from the northeastern Iranian town of Mashed. It is the first convoy to be organized jointly by the Iranian Red Crescent and the UNHCR since the withdrawal of aid agencies from Afghanistan in September.

Supplies in the convoy include 2,000 plastic tarpaulins and 10,000 blankets from UNHCR for more than 12,000 people in the displaced persons camp in Herat. The camp has an estimated 200,000 displaced Afghans.

On Monday, the UNHCR reported that 965 Afghans returned to their homeland from Iran, bringing to nearly 12,000 the number who have returned since November 1 from various towns throughout Iran.

With more Afghans going back to their homes, the total for November is expected to exceed October's returns of slightly more than 15,000 people. The Afghans are returning via Dogharoun, Iran's main border crossing in the Northeast, where they are registered before leaving the country.

In Dogharoun, UNHCR officials report a more relaxed atmosphere among the Afghans going home. Many of the male returnees have shaved off their beards. Some are now taking home with them radio cassette players, which they listen to as they wait for border formalities to be completed.

Previously, the Taliban carried out body searches on returnees at Islam Qala, the Afghan town across from Dogharoun, looking for music cassettes and other banned items. At the same time, men without beards previously had been forced to sign a promise that they would grow their beards within three months.


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