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Friday, 12 October, 2001, 15:49 GMT 16:49 UK
UN urges pause in air strikes
Shahi Arbabi temporary refugee camp in south-eastern Iran
Iran has promised to stop deporting refugees
United Nations Human Rights Commissioner Mary Robinson has called for a pause in the US-led air strikes against Afghanistan to allow vital aid to be taken to hundreds of thousands of people in the country.

She said the pause was needed to enable humanitarian agencies to gain access before winter sets in.

There is a desperate situation for hundreds of thousands of the Afghan civilian population who desperately need food

Mary Robinson
And British International Development Secretary Clare Short said that the humanitarian effort was just as important as the military campaign, and the $60m now committed by London needed to be doubled to avoid a "catastrophe".

Their comments came after the UN refugee agency (UNHCR) warned it was not ready to deal with any mass influx of refugees from Afghanistan.

The UNHCR recently predicted that 1.5 million people might be heading for Afghanistan's borders, but said volatile security around proposed camps in Pakistan and Pakistani bureaucracy meant it had no way of monitoring the actual numbers.

The agency's high commissioner, Ruud Lubbers, said he feared the new camps would not be ready in time for the fast-approaching winter.

Protesters with effigy of President Bush in city of Quetta
Aid agencies in Pakistan are working amid heightened tension
Pakistan has difficulty coping with the two million Afghan refugees already on its territory.

A UNHCR spokesman said the Pakistani authorities had apparently not checked with local people before agreeing on the sites of new camps.

"Six sites we surveyed and we thought were viable and where work was about to begin, the government pulled them without an explanation," he said.

"Right now we have five viable sites of which work on one site is under way. We have to have work start on 15 sites as soon as possible to be ready for 150,000 people."

Mr Lubbers said it was a "real race against time" that the UNHCR was losing.

"Compounding the problems is the insistence of the Pakistani Government that any new camps be built in dry, remote and insecure tribal areas along the Afghan border," he said.

Pakistani dilemma

The news comes amid reports that the Pakistani authorities may rethink a ban on the entry of refugees from Afghanistan.

Reuters news agency quoted a Foreign Ministry spokesman as saying that Pakistan had always been generous in caring for refugees and the decision to seal its borders with Afghanistan would be reviewed if necessary.

Border officials are already admitting Afghans in need of medical help.

Afghan refugees block road near Quetta  to stop Western journalists approaching the border
Refugees have been venting anger in Pakistan since the bombing began

But the Pakistan administration, plagued by domestic violence and a potential surge in Afghan refugees, has given no guarantees on any opening.

And the government's chief spokesman, Major-General Rashid Qureshi, warned Afghan refugees could be deported if they caused trouble in Pakistan.

He said that about 60% of anti-US demonstrators were Afghan refugees, drawn from the more than two million Pakistan shelters.

Fillipo Grandi, UNHCR
says they need help from the international community
See also:

11 Oct 01 | South Asia
Afghans threatened with deportation
30 Sep 01 | South Asia
In pictures: Afghanistan's refugees
19 Sep 01 | South Asia
On edge: Afghanistan's neighbours
27 Sep 01 | UK Politics
Blair calls for aid alliance
25 Sep 01 | South Asia
The wild border town of Quetta
12 Oct 01 | South Asia
Prayer day protests erupt in Pakistan
12 Oct 01 | Middle East
Palestinians protest against US
12 Oct 01 | Middle East
Religious warning to Saudi monarchy
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