"We know that there have been some deaths, most probably due to the cold weather, but we don't have any numbers yet," a UNHCR spokesman, Jack Redden, told IRIN, in the Pakistani capital, Islamabad.
The deaths are said to have occurred at camps in the Bajaur Agency, some 100 km, north of Peshawar, the provincial capital of the North West Frontier Province (NWFP).
Redden's comments follow local newspaper reports suggesting that up to 12 refugees, mainly children, had died of pneumonia over the past two weeks in an unusually cold spell.
The deaths are reported to have occurred at the Kotkai, Chahermang and Bar Khalzo camps, established in the Bajaur Agency to house thousands of refugees who poured over the border following the US-led air strikes on Afghanistan. "These people are living in tents, and the temperatures often fall to below zero during these months," Redden said. UNHCR had mobilised local field staff in the NWFP to visit the areas and check the camps. "We are making plans to see how we can help," he added.
The Pakistan Community Development Programme (Pak CDP) is a local NGO working on water and sanitation at the Kotkai camp, home to 1,600 Afghan families. Responding to the refugees' needs, the NGO distributed some 3,000 bundles of warm clothes, blankets and shoes to the affected people over the weekend. "The tents they are living in are like ovens in the summer and deep freezers in the winter," the director of Pak CDP, Shafiq Durrani, told IRIN from Peshawar.
Durrani added that temperatures were known to drop to as low as minus six degrees, from which the refugees had little respite. Describing the Afghans' position as extremely vulnerable, he noted that they were precluded for safety reasons from burning wood inside their tents, and were in desperate need of kerosene.
According to the aid official, most of the camp dwellers were ethnic Pashtuns from northern Afghanistan, who maintained they were too afraid to return to their places of origin as they were now being ruled by Uzbek and Tajik groups. "These people need urgent help and we need to act quickly if we want to prevent more deaths," Durrani warned.
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