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OK near on return of Afghan refugees
9. June 2007, 09:44

By JAMES CALDERWOOD, Associated Press
Afghanistan and Pakistan are nearing agreement on the return of the more than 2 million refugees who fled to Pakistan a quarter century ago, a U.N. refugee agency official said Friday.

"We have now reached an agreement on the language of the text" on the voluntary repatriation, Salvatore Lombardo, UNHCR representative for Afghanistan, said after talks between the two sides. "I think in that respect it (meeting) was quite successful."

Pakistan has been pushing to repatriate the refugees to Afghanistan over a three-year period, mainly in response to international criticism over cross-border attacks by Taliban militants who Pakistan says often hide in refugee camps.

The two sides have been meeting every three months under the auspices of the U.N. High Commissioner for Refugees. The draft text, Lombardo said, is going back to the two governments for approval before signing. Details of the plan were not immediately available.

Since the 2001 fall of the Taliban, more than 3 million Afghans have returned from Pakistan, including more than 220,000 refugees this year.

The refugees, mostly ethnic Pashtuns from Afghan border provinces, fled to Pakistan during the Soviet occupation of Afghanistan in the 1980s. More than 2.15 million refugees still remain in Pakistan.

Lombardo said the Pakistani plan envisages the refugees returning to their original homes in Afghanistan, not merely to new camps across the border.

"Those who are landless, the government will give them land," said Abdul Qader Ahadi, Afghanistan's executive minister of refugees and repatriation.

Ahadi said Kabul still faces "serious challenges, such as a lack of housing, jobs, schools, clinics, security."

"If large numbers of Afghans return ... we cannot absorb them," he said. "They may go back to Pakistan and create more problems."

At a meeting in February, the two sides agreed to close four refugee camps in Pakistan by September because of security concerns over rampant lawlessness.

Sajid Hussain Chattha, a Pakistani official for border issues with Afghanistan, said there were widespread "unlawful activities" such as gunrunning in the camps but denied any al-Qaida-related activity was there.

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