The following is a near-verbatim transcript of today's briefing at the United Nations Information Centre in Islamabad by the United Nations offices for Pakistan and Afghanistan (excluding question and answer session).
** Eric Falt, Director, UN Information Centre
Good afternoon. We mentioned to you only a couple of days ago that UN Secretary-General Kofi Annan would be in Tokyo for the Reconstruction Conference, but I am happy to confirm that he will then travel to Islamabad on 23 January before heading to Kabul on 25 January and then on to Teheran. The records show that it will be the first visit of a UN Secretary-General to Afghanistan since Mr. Dag Hammarskjold in 1959. That was 42 years ago. As for Pakistan you will recall that Mr. Annan was here only last March.
Concerning his stops in Islamabad and Tehran, the UN has long been calling on Afghanistan's neighbors to support peace in the country, and -during his visit- the Secretary-General will be urging neighbors to work more closely together to keep the security situation in Afghanistan stable, arguing that it's in their common interest to do so.
In a second resolution on Afghanistan in two days, the Security Council yesterday revised its list of sanctions against Afghanistan to target the Al-Qaida network and its supporters. In a unanimous decision, the Council adopted a resolution last night updating a previous set of measures that required all countries to freeze the financial assets of individuals, groups or organizations on a list compiled by its sanctions committee for Afghanistan. The resolution also obliges nations to continue a travel ban and arms embargo on the remaining elements of the Taliban, Al-Qaida network and its supporters.
I also want to bring to your attention that the High Commissioner for Human Rights, Ms. Mary Robinson, issued yesterday a statement concerning the Taliban and Al Qaeda prisoners currently being held at United States facilities at Guantanamo, Cuba.
In her statement, Mrs. Robinson reminds all concerned that these people are entitled to the protection of international human rights law and international humanitarian law. She adds that the legal status of the detainees and their entitlement to prisoner-of-war status, if disputed, must be determined by a competent tribunal. Any possible trial of those being held should be guided by the principles of a fair trial, including the presumption of innocence. We have the text of her statement available for you.
In a press conference in Geneva, Mrs. Robinson also stated that, at a time of difficulty, it is important that human rights and international humanitarian standards be clearly upheld and observed. She said that, in some respect, some people are feeling that the rules are changing, but that it's her concern to say "the rules are not changing, the rules are as important as ever."
Finally, new progress was also recorded in the war against drugs flowing out of Afghanistan, as Mr. Hamid Karzai, Chairman of the Interim Administration, issued a decree outlawing the production, processing, illicit use, smuggling and trafficking of all drugs such as opium and their ingredients. It also pledged that the Interim Administration, with the help of international organizations, will promote crop substitution programs throughout the country.
** Yusuf Hassan, Spokesperson for UNHCR
UNHCR continues the transfer of vulnerable Afghans from the Killi Faizo transit center on the Chaman border post. Today, we relocated 2,000 refugees from the transit center to a new location. Another 334 Afghan Uzbeks were shifted from Quetta to the new Latifabad refugee camp, 70 kilometers south of the provincial capital.
At the same, in the North West Frontier Province, we have moved some 1,265 refugees from Jalozai to new refugee sites in the tribal areas. A convoy of 13 buses ferried 818 people to the Ashgaro 1 in Kurram agency, which opened today. Ashgaro 1, is some 350 kilometers south west of Peshawar.
In all, UNHCR has established 12 new camps in Pakistan's border regions, split between North West Frontier Province and Baluchistan to the south. UNHCR currently cares for nearly 130,000 Afghan refugees in the newly established border camps.
During the past two weeks, more than 35,000 Afghans returned home. The majority of the recent returnees left Baluchistan Province in southern Pakistan, from where more than 25,000 refugees repatriated during the first half of January. Returns from Iran topped more than 10,800 during the first half of the month, all of them crossing via the Dogharoun border, eastern Iran's principle gateway to Afghanistan.
Yesterday, UNHCR staff returned to Kandahar and re-opened the agency's looted office in the bomb-shattered city. UNHCR's expatriate staff, along with all foreign aid workers, had been withdrawn from Afghanistan in September following the terrorist attacks on New York and Washington.
In the days following UNHCR's withdrawal last September, Taliban gunmen had taken-over UNHCR's office and commandeered the UN refugee agency's four-wheel drive vehicles. Office equipment and other relief supplies were also taken.
The returning UNHCR staff were welcomed back to Kandahar by several of the agency's Afghan colleagues who had returned to the city following the withdrawal of most Taliban units late last year.
A priority for the returning UNHCR staff will be to determine the emergency relief needs of the southern region, from where the majority of the 13,000 fresh Afghan refugees currently encamped just inside Pakistan at the Chaman crossing have fled. Late last year there were also up to 60,000 displaced Afghans reportedly camped in several makeshift sites just inside Afghanistan near Spin Boldak. UNHCR will be looking at what kinds of relief aid might help to get these displaced people to return to their homes.
Also in southern Afghanistan, UNHCR staff visited the town of Zaranj from 7 - 12 January. Up to some 4,000 displaced people from 800 families are currently living in difficult conditions in Zaranj, which is located north of the Iranian border city of Zahedan. The displaced Afghans face water shortages and a lack of food aid. Some of the 4,000 sleep out in the open.
UNHCR will be working with other agencies in the region to get aid to these displaced Afghans who mainly originate from villages west of Kandahar.
A recently completed UNHCR survey in Kabul, Ghazni, Logar and Wardak provinces in central Afghanistan found up to 53,000 displaced Afghan families sheltering in the region. The UN refugee agency survey took place in late December. The 53,000 families represent up to 250,000 displaced people in the four provinces.
Since 13 November when the Taliban withdrew from the Afghan capital, some 47,000 people have returned to the city. Most of the returnees over the last seven weeks were displaced persons, but thousands were refugees returning from Pakistan. The pace of these returns indicates that displacement in the central region is declining, but still remains one of Afghanistan's principle problems.
December's study found some 19,500 displaced families in Ghazni Province, some 15,700 in Kabul Province, 12,700 families in Wardak Province and 4,200 families in Logar Province. Each family has on average five members.
UNHCR is currently seeking local Afghan NGOs that can operate in the remote central Afghan region which is still experiencing serious security problems that hamper the start-up of an expanded aid program under which UNHCR wants to deliver packages containing stoves, fuel, blankets, kitchen sets, clothing, hygienic supplies and other items to needy displaced families.
** Lori Hieber-Girarder, Spokesperson for WHO
To begin preparations for malaria season (which starts in April) the WHO sub-office in Jalalabad has conducted two days of training for 24 surveyors of the Roll Back Malaria survey in the Alingar district of Laghman province and the Batikot district of Nangarhar province. The aim of these surveyors is to detect malaria and monitor potential outbreaks. Malaria affects up to 4 million Afghans each year, including nearly half a million cases of the potentially fatal falciparum malaria which can cause brain malaria. Earlier this year, this region near Jalalabad was the site of several deadly cases of falciparum malaria.
Meanwhile in Herat, improvement of health services for the 300,000 displaced people in Maslakh camp continues. A sixth clinic is being constructed by Medecins du Monde, which should be operational by the end of this month. An emergency medical team of one female and one male medical doctor and two paramedical staff has been established to remain in Maslakh camp throughout the night, and there is also one ambulance available for night duty.
The WHO has received news of 22 deaths this week in Maslakh camp and another three in Shaidayee. Morbidity reports show high incidence of acute respiratory infections, probably due to the cold weather. The World Health Organization welcomes the additional relief supplies of warm clothing, blankets and heating material being provided by international agencies, such as UNICEF.
** Khaled Mansour, Spokesperson for WFP
Two WFP trucks carrying 20 tons of wheat each were stopped at gunpoint and the food stolen by armed gunmen in Aibak city in north Afghanistan on Tuesday.
A group of armed people stopped the Afghan drivers of the two commercial trucks, beat them and took one truck to a downtown street in Aibak and distributed the food to the people in this area. The second truck has been reportedly taken to a military unit nearby. The drivers are shaken but in good condition and they are now in Mazar-i-Sharif. Later the two trucks were released to the transporter- empty.
WFP has approached officials from the Afghan interim government in Mazar-i-Sharif and requested their good offices in having all the food returned and making sure this incident does not take place again. They promised to help investigate the incident and return the food.
There is no justification whatsoever for forcibly taking food aid even if it ends up with civilians.
WFP, which is helping six million Afghans in this war and drought-stricken country, is targeting those civilians who would starve without food aid.
The two trucks were loaded in Turkmenistan earlier this week and the food was part of our assistance plan for more than 18,000 people who are severely affected by the drought in Baghlan province. Baghlan and other provinces in the north are part of the hunger belt where more than three million people, whose rain fed crops have failed for three years in a row, are dependent on food aid.
This incident highlights one of the major challenges that WFP is still facing in Afghanistan: insecurity. Insecurity varies from one region to another and changes on weekly basis, but - in short - it is one of the main concerns and impediments to our work in Afghanistan.
In Herat, today was the last day of the allocation of tokens for the citywide food distribution. On Saturday, the distribution will end having covered about 53,000 families with a total of 2,641 MT of food.
The distribution in Herat is part of WFP effort to help the urban population of Afghanistan recover from the recent war impact. Herat is the second city to benefit from such a distribution after Kabul. Meanwhile, our focus remains on the rural population and the displaced people in Afghanistan who will continue to receive food aid on regular basis.
The Afghan female surveyors carried out their work for 11 days without a problem though from time to time they have been obstructed in the streets by people demanding to have food tokens. The tokens covered the poorest 80 percent of the city population.
The surveyors, 250 women in total, are to be paid tomorrow. Each will receive about 33 dollars, three dollars a day. Several female surveyors said that they were planning to buy clothes for their children and oil and rice for their families with the money.