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Pakistan pressing Afghan refugees to leave

February 08, 2007|From the Associated Press

ISLAMABAD, PAKISTAN — Pakistan will close four camps housing 240,000 Afghan refugees this year and hopes that more than 2 million who fled to this country will return home by 2009 because they pose a security risk, officials said Wednesday.

The four camps in Pakistan's troubled border region will close by August, the United Nations refugee agency said after its representatives met with Pakistani and Afghan ministers.

Sajid Hussain Chattha, a senior Pakistani official, said he was hopeful that the majority of the camps' 240,000 inhabitants would return to Afghanistan, though some may opt to move to other camps in Pakistan.

More than 2 million Afghans already have chosen to return home with help from the Office of the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees since U.S.-led forces toppled the Taliban regime at the end of 2001.

However, a survey begun in October has registered 2.1 million Afghan refugees still in the country and the government is pressing for them to go home.

President Gen. Pervez Musharraf said last week that the refugee camps were a haven for Taliban militants and their supporters and that their maze-like streets were too dangerous for security forces to enter.

Wednesday's meeting was held in a five-star hotel where a suicide bomber killed a security guard last month, one of a series of blasts in Pakistan that officials suspect were the work of Taliban-linked militants in its border region.

Many of the Afghans in Pakistan arrived in the wake of the 1979 military invasion of Afghanistan by the former Soviet Union and during the civil war that followed the Soviets' departure a decade later.

Most live in dusty refugee camps or in squalid settlements near major cities.

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