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Number of Afghan refugees returning from Iran grows

GENEVA, Switzerland (CNN) -- The U.N. refugee agency said Wednesday that the number of Afghan refugees heading home from Iran has exceeded 24,000 people since the Taliban's hold on the western Afghan city of Herat was broken last month.

The U.N. High Commissioner for Refugees said the number of returnees from Iran since November 12 swelled past 20,000 Monday and has quickly risen with additional movements of Afghans eager to return home.

Most of the Afghans who have voluntarily repatriated from Iran since the fall of Herat live in the region. Others want to return to homes in areas as far as the Badakhshan and Baghlan provinces in the country's northeast.

The U.N. agency is sending more supplies into Herat from Turkmenistan and Iran this week, and officials said they hope to keep pace with the growing number of returning refugees. A convoy is expected to depart Thursday from Turkmenistan to Herat, with the agency's second convoy of aid supplies to leave Mashad in northeastern Iran on Sunday.

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On Tuesday, UNHCR's senior field coordinator in Herat assessed the status of the Maslakh camp with staff from other relief agencies. The interagency mission brought in tents, blankets, mattresses and plastic sheeting to the camp, which is west of Herat.

Up to 150,000 Afghans are reportedly in the largely makeshift camp, and the agency said there is an immediate need to improve water and sanitation services.

Meanwhile, UNHCR also is dispatching additional staff to Herat to boost relief activities in the western region. The agency cited concerns it has about reports from several Iranian Red Crescent-run camps inside Afghanistan's frontier with Iran. Two children camped outside the Iranian Red Crescent's Mile 46 camp died Monday night following illnesses.

The agency said it remains deeply concerned about the continuing security problems and lack of assistance for some 2,400 displaced Afghans who are camped outside the Mile 46 and Makaki camps and who have not been allowed to be registered.

Afghans world's largest refugee group

U.N. High Commissioner for Refugees Ruud Lubbers also hailed the agreement for a new interim government in Afghanistan that was signed Wednesday near Bonn, Germany, as "an important and historic milestone" and said the agency would work to create a lasting peace so millions of Afghans could return home.

Speaking in Berlin on Wednesday, Lubbers said the return of Afghan refugees and displaced people will have a significant impact on the recovery of the war-torn country.

Afghans are the world's largest refugee group with more than 3.6 million outside the country. Around 1 million are internally displaced.

Lubbers said UNHCR will maintain a "two-pronged" approach that focuses on assisting refugees inside Afghanistan and those in neighboring countries.

Kamel Morjane, the UNHCR assistant high commissioner, arrived Wednesday in Pakistan on a weeklong visit to the region. While in Pakistan, he will meet with foreign affairs and interior ministry officials. He will proceed Friday to the Afghan capital, Kabul.


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