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U.N. presses Taliban over refugee efforts

Ruud Lubbers
Lubbers is the most senior international figure to meet the Taliban envoy, here seen touring a refugee camp.  

ISLAMABAD, Pakistan -- The head of the United Nations refugee agency has urged the Taliban to protect aid operations in Afghanistan.

During meetings with the ambassador to Pakistan, Ruud Lubbers urged the Taliban to return looted U.N. property and to let the organisation go about its work in Afghanistan.

Earlier Lubbers called on Pakistan's President Pervez Musharraf to open its borders to Afghans fleeing the U.S.-led bombing.

Both Rudd Lubbers, of the U.N. High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR), and Mullah Abdul Salam Zaeef, the Taliban's envoy, agreed on the importance of providing aid to civilians in order to stem the tide of refugees trying to leave the country.

"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.

The UNHCR is hoping the Taliban will live up to its promises to stop the looting of U.N. supplies and ensure the safety of Afghan staff.

Many of the six million displaced people, according to the U.N., are moving deeper into the countryside in search of food and shelter after fleeing the cities.

This was one of the reasons why Lubbers asked the Taliban for "safe access to certain places to bring equipments and materials," Reuters quoted him as saying.

Everyday the U.N. World Food Programme is sending trucks across the Pakistan border into Afghanistan's countryside carrying on average 2,000 metric tones of supplies.

Islamic Relief, one of the non-governmental organizations coordinating the relief efforts, says 1,000 metric tonnes 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 non-governmental organizations, who will distribute the food to people in the rural areas" says Heather Hill, of the U.N. World Food Programme.

Pakistan reluctant

President Musharraf reiterated his reluctance to receive more refugees from Afghanistan at a meeting with Lubbers.

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

Mullah Abdul Salam Zaeef
The Taliban envoy chief, Zaeef, gave assurrances over continuing UN efforts in Afghanistan.  

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

Fifteen refugee camp sites have been readied by UNHCR 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," Reuters quoted Lubbers as saying.

UNHCR says testimonies of people fleeing from Afghanistan to Pakistan consistently indicate that both the ruling Taliban and the opposition are trying to conscript men to fight in the war.

Musharraf also repeated Pakistan's position that camps should be set up just inside Afghanistan for refugees, limiting the number of refugees joining the two million already in the country.

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

Last weekend more that 5,000 people are believed to have crossed in this way.

The overall figure of Afghans who have fled to Pakistan since September 11th remains unknown but various estimates by the United Nations put it at more than 100,000.


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