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Pakistan: UNHCR appeals for calm after refugee camp violence

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ISLAMABAD, 17 May 2007 (IRIN) - The United Nations Refugee Agency (UNHCR) has appealed for calm after an outbreak of violence at an Afghan refugee camp earmarked for closure in Pakistan's southwestern Balochistan province.

"Although we fully respect Pakistan's right to close this camp, we call on both sides to restrain themselves from further violence," UNHCR spokesman, Babar Baloch told IRIN in the Pakistani capital, Islamabad, on Thursday.

"This closure should proceed in an orderly manner and in no way damage the goodwill and harmony that has existed between Pakistanis and the Afghans living in the country for the past 27 years," Baloch said.

His comments come one day after reports that at least three Afghan refugees were killed and 10 others injured during clashes between the Pakistani authorities and residents of the Jungle Pir Alizai refugee camp, 62km west of the provincial capital, Quetta. The camp is one of four in Pakistan slated for closure this year.

"We cannot confirm these reports as UNHCR has not had an active presence in this camp since mid-2005," Baloch added.

Both sides blame the other for Wednesday's bloodshed when Pakistani officials began demolishing homes in the camp. Jungle Pir Alizai, which is scheduled to close by 15 June, is home to at least 35,000 Afghans, many of whom have lived in Pakistan since the Soviet invasion of their homeland in 1979.

Katchagari refugee camp

One day earlier at least 70 shops and three homes were razed at the Katchagari refugee camp, home to 64,000 Afghan refugees and located in Pakistan's North West Frontier Province (NWFP). This camp is also scheduled to close by 15 June.

Baloch said the shops, including those belonging to Afghans and Pakistanis, were razed after owners were issued with written notices of eviction.

"We again call on the Pakistani authorities to do this in an orderly manner and allow shopowners to retrieve any personal belongings from the properties in question," he said.

Contentious

The closure of the four camps, two in Balochistan and two in NWFP and affecting more than 200,000 Afghans, is contentious - particularly as over two million Afghans still live in Pakistan more than five years after the collapse of the Taliban regime in December 2001 and provide a source of political friction between Kabul and Islamabad, experts say.

Pakistan says that the camps close to its border with Afghanistan have become a haven for pro-Taliban insurgents and criminal elements.

Moreover, Islamabad has long said those Afghans still living in the country would ultimately have to return to their country. However, Afghans living in Pakistan cite ongoing security concerns as the primary barrier to their return.

Baloch said the camp closures will proceed as planned and has called on camp residents to take advantage of the opportunities available to them to relocate.

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