Pakistan will close down four Afghan refugee camps this year as part of its bid to stop Taliban militants launching cross-border attacks in Afghanistan, officials said yesterday.
The decision to wind up the camps, with a population of 236,000, was taken for "security and development reasons" at a meeting of Pakistani, Afghan and UN refugee agency (UNHCR) officials held on Wednesday, the UNHCR said in a statement.
Girdi Jungle and Jungle Pir Alizai camps in southwestern Baluchistan Province, and Katchagari and Jalozai in North West Frontier Province had already been slated for closure as far back as 2004, it said.
"We understand that security near the border is a top priority and stress that refugee camps must retain their civilian nature," said Guenet Guebre Christos, the UNHCR representative in Pakistan. "At the same time, the authorities should recognize genuine humanitarian needs, as they have done in the last 30 years, and offer options to Afghans affected by camp closure."
The Minister of States and Frontier Regions Sardar Yar Muhammed Rind later told a joint press conference that the four camps would be closed this summer.
Katchagari and Jungle Pir Alizai will close by June 15, while Jalozai and Girdi Jungle will wind up by August 31, Rind said.
Afghan refugees would be given a choice between voluntary repatriation assisted by the UN and, for those who cannot return in the immediate future, relocation to existing camps in Pakistan, he said.
Pakistani President Pervez Musharraf, under international pressure to stop the infiltration of Taliban militants into Afghanistan from his country, last week said that many of the insurgents were Afghan refugees.
Taliban rebels crossing the long and porous border that includes Baluchistan and North West Frontier Province have been blamed for an escalation of the insurgency in Afghanistan that claimed around 4,000 lives last year.
More than 2.8 million Afghans who fled a quarter-century of instability in their homeland have returned from Pakistan since 2002 under a UN-assisted voluntary scheme, but almost the same number remain there.
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