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Bombings hinder U.N. plans to return Iraqis from Iran

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United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees

TEHRAN, Iran (Reuters) -- A senior U.N. official said on Sunday plans to repatriate 70,000 to 80,000 Iraqi refugees from Iran by the end of the year had been dashed by the bombing of the U.N. offices in Baghdad and other security fears.

Philippe Lavanchy, chief of mission of the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR) in Tehran, said none of Iran's 200,000 or so Iraqi refugees had so far been repatriated through official channels, but thousands had illegally made a perilous journey home across the mine-strewn border.

Many Iraqi refugees, a quarter of whom live in camps and others in Iranian cities, fled to Iran after Iraq's ousted President Saddam Hussein crushed a Shi'ite uprising in 1991.

After this month's bombing of the U.N. offices in Baghdad, Lavanchy said the UNHCR froze plans to start official repatriations which would have ensured a safe border crossing and offered support to returnees from U.N. officials on arrival.

"We had to suspend, to freeze, all our operations and I had to inform the authorities here that the movement of August 26 was cancelled," Lavanchy told Reuters, referring to the date the first small convoy of refugees was due to return home.

He said Friday's bombing of a Shi'ite Muslim shrine in the Iraqi city of Najaf added to the UNHCR's security worries.

"I am still awaiting the green light from my headquarters to be able to organise a movement. When I say green light I mean that we have the capacity the other side of the border to receive these people and take care of them properly. This is not the case today with what it going on," he said.

The United Nations and other agencies have reduced or withdrawn staff from Iraq amid security concerns.

But Lavanchy said many Iraqi refugees, most of them Shi'ite Muslims from Iraq's south, were keen to return even if it meant crossing illegally and paying unofficial traffickers for help.

It is a hazardous journey across a border that was heavily mined in the 1980-1988 Iran-Iraq war. State media said more than 100 people seeking to visit holy sites in Iraq were killed in the seven weeks to mid-August trying to cross.

Lavanchy said many refugees wanted to return to Iraq to recover lost possessions after the fall of Saddam's government.

So far, the only Iraqi refugees repatriated by the United Nations were from Rafha camp in Saudi Arabia.

Experts say Iran has the biggest refugee population in the world. Alongside about 200,000 Iraqis, the Iranian government says there are now about two million Afghan refugees.

Some 530,000 Afghans have already returned to Afghanistan under a voluntary programme reached in April 2001 between Iran, Afghanistan and the UNHCR, although the pace of returns has slowed recently.

Copyright 2003 Reuters. All rights reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten, or redistributed.

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