ANKARA, 24 Aug 2004 (IRIN) - Convoys of returning Afghans from Iran have resumed after a temporary suspension of two days due to insecurity around the western Afghan city of Herat which left some 13,000 Afghan returnees stranded on both sides of the border.
"The normal repatriation convoys from Iran have resumed," Xavier Creach, a spokesman for the office of the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR), told IRIN from the Iranian capital, Tehran, on Tuesday. "The backlog of returnees stranded on the border inside Iran was cleared on Friday and Saturday, with a resumption of new convoys beginning on Sunday."
UNHCR temporarily suspended convoys from Iran on 17 August following fierce fighting between troops loyal to Herat governor Ismail Khan and militias loyal to a rival leader. Many roads in and out of the ancient city had been blocked.
UN High Commissioner for Refugees, Ruud Lubbers, expressed concern over the temporary disruption of the repatriation, and the impact of the fighting on returning Afghans, stressing that those who had made the brave choice to return home deserved peace and stability.
In recent weeks, up to 4,000 Afghans a day had been making the journey back from Iran, according to the UN refugee agency.
Herat is the primary entry point for Afghan returnees from Iran. After passing through the Iranian border town of Dogharoun in northeastern Khorasan province, the country's main crossing point along the 936 km frontier with Afghanistan, returnees continue onward to all parts of Afghanistan.
But insecurity in the area last week prompted UNHCR to suspend its operations in the area, resulting in a major logistics challenge for thousands stranded on both sides of the border. Some 9,500 were stuck in Herat in UNHCR transit camps designed to accommodate no more than 4,000, while another 3,500 had to wait on the Iranian side of the border.
"It was a very difficult situation," Creach explained. Alongside the Iranian authorities, UNHCR worked throughout the night to provide emergency assistance and shelter to those in need, he added.
With the suspension of violence and a ceasefire between the warring factions, however, UNHCR succeeded in arranging safe passage to those returnees wishing to travel to the north of the country beginning on Thursday, while those wishing to travel to the south of the country did so on Friday and Saturday.
On Sunday, 3,577 new returnees passed through the Iranian border town of Dogharoun, with 3,529 on Monday, Creach said, adding close to 1 million Afghans had returned from Iran since the start of the voluntary repatriation effort on 9 April 2002; over 330,000 alone in the first six months of this year.
As part of that assistance effort, returnees register at one of 11 voluntary repatriation centres (VRCs) located throughout Iran - including the cities of Mashhad, Qom, Esfahan, Kerman, Shiraz, Yazd, Arak, Zabol and Zahedan, as well as two in Tehran. There they are provided with an assistance package, including a small monetary grant to facilitate their return.
In a parallel effort, more than 2 million Afghans have returned from Pakistan, the other primary host country to Afghan refugees today.
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