Afghanistan + 2 more

UN press briefing in Islamabad 23 Jan 2002

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News and Press Release
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PRESS BRIEFING BY THE U.N. OFFICES FOR PAKISTAN AND AFGHANISTAN
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. UN Secretary-General Kofi Annan left Tokyo last night at the conclusion of the two-day International Conference on Reconstruction Assistance to Afghanistan. As you probably know, a total of over $4.5 billion in pledges and contributions was announced by donors in Tokyo, with $1.8 billion pledged for 2002, which prompted Mr. Annan to say that the Conference had been "remarkably successful".

The Secretary-General is now on his way to Islamabad after a brief stopover in Bangkok this afternoon, and he is expected to arrive at around 8:00 pm at Chaklala Air Base. I understand that the Foreign Minister will be there to receive him.

Mr. Annan is accompanied by his Special Representative for Afghanistan, Mr. Lakhdar Brahimi, and I also wanted to mention the presence in the delegation of Sir Kieran Prendergast, Under-Secretary-General for Political Affairs, who arrived separately this morning.

The Secretary-General's schedule for tomorrow includes a meeting with Foreign Minister Abdul Sattar, followed by a press conference at the Foreign Ministry art 4:15 pm. The Secretary-General will also meet President Musharraf, and he and his team will have meetings with UN officials.

As in Iran, one of the main items of discussion of Mr. Annan while in Islamabad will relate to the notion that a stable and prosperous Afghanistan is in the interest of all its neighbors.

We have had a lot of questions on the subject of India-Pakistan tensions, and it will obviously be discussed as well but I will not want to go beyond that and refer you to the Secretary-General's latest statement on the subject, on 12 January, when he welcomed a speech by General Musharraf in which the President emphasized tolerance, the rule of law and the need to fight terrorism and extremism.

Reiterating that the differences between India and Pakistan could only be resolved peacefully, the Secretary-General had also stated that he "was glad to note the reference in President Musharraf's speech to the need for a solution in Kashmir through dialogue and by peaceful means." The Secretary-General called on both sides to "do whatever is necessary to reduce tension and enable a resumption of their bilateral dialogue without further delay, with a view to resolving their differences".

During his visit last year, Mr. Annan spoke at length on many topics and I would like to invite you to refresh your memory by having a look at our website -where we have posted his speeches and other material. The URL is www.un.org.pk/unic/

On Friday morning, the Secretary-General will leave early for Kabul. There, he will have a series of meetings with members of the Interim Administration -including of course Chairman Hamid Karzai, whom he met for the first time in Tokyo. Mr. Annan will also have a chance to view first hand the destruction that Kabul has incurred from the many years of conflict and he will also visit a girls' school.

** Stephanie Bunker, Spokesperson for the Office of the UN Humanitarian Coordinator for Afghanistan

With the permanent return of the United Nations Regional Coordination Officer (RCO) to Kandahar, along with representatives from several agencies, all regional centers now have a permanent UN international presence. Over 100 UN international staff are now inside Afghanistan. Access beyond the cities remains problematic in several locations, due mainly to instability and lawlessness. Disarmament is now ongoing in most regional locations, but with mixed success.

The South and East remain most problematic for aid agencies. In the South, Kandahar city itself and environs are still insecure. The roads between Herat and Kandahar, and between Kandahar-Ghazni-Kabul remain insecure. In the East, agencies are respecting a 30-kilometer limit around Jalalabad, and road access between Kabul and Jalalabad remains insecure. Kabul remains tense, and incidents of criminality are on the rise. In the North, security appears to be improving, with Mazar town more calm than previously. Nevertheless, inter factional fighting is going on around Kunduz.

Significant returns from neighboring countries, mainly recently displaced people, have been occurring. Since 1 January, around 10,000 refugees returned home to the West from Iran. Border officials report around 3,000 people per day returning from Pakistan. Significant numbers of people displaced by fighting from Kandahar appear to have returned home. Around 25,000 of the asylum seekers in Spin Boldak on the Afghanistan/Pakistan border have departed in the past two weeks, apparently returning home. At the same time, there have be significant numbers of new arrivals from the South and East in Pakistan, thought to be a result of continued conflict in the East, lawlessness and shortages of assistance (owing to lack of access to communities for aid agencies).

In Hazarajat, wheat distribution in Bamyan City is still underway, as is the survey of burnt houses around Bamyan. Within the broader region of the Hazarajat all main roads are still open and snowfall is, to date, drastically below average including less than last year.

Efforts to assess the conditions and numbers if IDPs are continuing where access allows. Re-registration of IDPs around Herat is to commence imminently. Assessment of IDPs in the East will commence once security allows. Recent reports of the IDPs in the "islands" in North East Afghanistan on the border with Tajiskistan indicate that people are not returning home, and their situation is deteriorating.

In Afghanistan, hopes for a break in the drought are rapidly diminishing. While there has been some rain and snow, as we have noted previously, quantities are inadequate. In some places, such as Hazarajat, there has been even less precipitation than last year. Unless there is a dramatic increase in precipitation in the next six weeks, Afghanistan may confront a fourth year of drought.

** Khaled Mansour, Spokesperson for WFP

Good Afternoon. Ms. Catherine Bertini, the Executive Director of the UN World Food Program, will arrive in Islamabad on Monday on a five-day trip to both Pakistan and Afghanistan.

She will visit Kabul and other regions from Monday to Wednesday to review WFP operations aimed at assisting the hungry poor Afghans survive the devastating impact of war and drought. As you know, WFP has played a critical role in Afghanistan and is currently trying to assist almost 6 million people. Apart from dealing with the immediate emergency, WFP will also play an important role in Afghanistan's reconstruction and is preparing an emergency appeal to fund a series of rapid impact programs designed to rebuild parts of the country's basic infrastructure.

WFP also intends to continue its key role in assisting and advancing the cause of women both through emergency food aid, food for work and skills training projects, as well as country-wide school feeding programs in which a monthly ration of cooking oil is used as an inducement for parents to send girls to school. During her visit, Ms. Bertini will also meet with senior Afghan and UN officials. We are planning a press conference for her in Kabul and we will let you know on Friday the exact date and time.

As many of you are aware, in Pakistan, WFP has also played an important role in supporting women's access to health and girls' access to education, as well as helping Pakistan deal with the burden of millions of Afghan refugees. This will be the focus of Ms. Bertini's trip to Pakistan from Wednesday to Saturday next week. She is going to meet with senior officials in Islamabad, visit refugee camps, and visit schools in the northwest Frontier Province where WFP working with the government of Pakistan was able to dramatically increase the enrollment and retention of girls in primary schools.

We are planning a press conference for her in Islamabad and I will keep you posted about the exact date and time.

Ms. Bertini was appointed to her post in 1992. She was the first American woman to head a UN organization and the first woman to lead WFP. From WFP's headquarters in Rome, Ms. Bertini carries out the agency's dual mandate: to avert starvation in humanitarian crises through emergency operations and to promote long-term development projects aimed at breaking the deeply rooted hunger-poverty cycle.

The number of people receiving WFP food aid rose to 89 million in 1999, the highest in the organization's 36-year history. In 2000, 83 million beneficiaries were reached by WFP. You will find Ms Bertini's bio on the table outside the room.

In Afghanistan: In Kandahar, the overall security situation in the city and its surrounding area is calm. There are roadblocks in the city as part of the drive to disarm the population.

The WFP is still distributing about 6,000 tons in Kandahar and neighboring provinces this month. This is enough to feed about 720,000 people for one month.

Food prices seem to be decreasing in Kandahar. For example wheat flour went down by more than 12% to about 4,800 Afghanis per Kg, though bread is still selling at 2,000 Afghanis a loaf (250 gm). Fuel is also down by 10% to 5,000 Afghanis per liter. To give you a sense of how hard it is to live in Kandahar now, a casual laborer, if he fins work, can get 40,000 Afghanis per day.

WFP has just completed a labor market and grain trade field survey in Kabul, Herat, Faizabad, and Mazar. The results are not out yet, but I can share with you that last week, market prices for wheat and wheat flour have continued to decline. Last week alone, they went down by about 10% in Kabul, Mazar, and Herat. In the same cities, there has been an approximate 15% appreciation of the Afghani to the US$. This means that in dollar terms the market prices have remained more or less the same.

WFP has visited the IDP camps in Spinboldak south of Kandahar few days ago (19 January). The population in the five camps there is about 60,000 people. About 40 to 50 percent of them are nomads (Kuchi) who have been affected by the drought and lost their livestock. The rest had to leave their villages because of the war. Those people do not have enough food and WFP is considering a three-month package for the population of the camps.

Winter conditions began to be more noticeable this week with the amount of snow and rainfall making food deliveries more difficult to some parts of Afghanistan, especially in the north. Air operations were also impacted, Mazar-I-Sharif remained cut off for several days.

In Faizabad, it snowed and was raining almost non-stop day and night for several days. It is anticipated that snow will start accumulating on the road between Faizabad and Ishkashem, a vital route for WFP food aid deliveries from Tajikistan to Faizabad. The WFP snow clearance team from Canada is working on the road to keep it open. To do this, they have converted a truck into a snow-plough using locally available material. The team has also enlisted the help of the local population in clearing snow from known trouble spots.

To support their efforts WFP is going to fly two bulldozers from Novosibirsk in Siberia to Faizabad in the coming few days. It is a difficult task and technicians are working on ways to fit the two giant machines into the transport planes. Each bulldozer weighs over 17 tons and cost about 170,000 dollars. They have a special heated cabin to allow drivers to operate in temperatures as low as -45 Celsius. Reports from the Ishkasheem-Faizabad road today indicate the temperature hit a low mark of-67 Celsius at the high altitude parts of the road.

** Yusuf Hassan, Spokesperson for UNHCR

The multiple movements of Afghans continue. In the last three weeks, we have witnessed a considerable jump in both the numbers of Afghans fleeing the country and those returning home.

Some 16,934 Afghan entered Pakistan through the southern province of Baluchistan, of whom 13,000 were registered at the Killi Faizo transit centre adjacent to the Chaman border post, and transferred to Dara and Landi Karez refugee camps.

At the same time, more than 58,000 spontaneously returned home from Pakistan, of these 33, 365 originated from Baluchistan, while more than 24, 672 left the North West Frontier Province through the Torkham border crossing from the16-22 January.

Efforts to relocate homeless new arrivals to new refugee camps where they can be better protected and assisted continues. Since the start of the relocation operation, UNHCR has moved more than 130,000 Afghans to 13 new refugee camps in Baluchistan and North West Frontier Province. Since October, over 50,000 Afghans have entered the country through the Chaman border crossing and have been registered at the Killi Faizo transit centre, where they have subsequently been transferred by UNHCR and the Pakistani's Commissioner for Afghan Refugees to the newly established camps of Roghani, Landi Karez, Dara and the new UAE Red Crescent camp.

In addition, UNHCR estimates that around 150,000 Afghans entered Pakistan through unofficial border points, blending with the existing refugee populations in established refugee villages and in urban areas.

Conditions in the makeshift Jalozai camp deteriorated further following the post-11 September refugee influx. Seeking to avert a humanitarian crisis, UNHCR undertook to relocate refugees to new sites where full assistance and protection could be provided. Two months into the operation, the Jalozai camp is gradually closing down. Afghans who took refuge in the makeshift Jalozai camp endured tremendous hardship and, by shifting to the new sites, now find their situation has improved dramatically.

The six new camps in NWFP now host more than 46,000 refugees, the overwhelming majority of whom are from Jalozai camp.

In view of the rapid movement of refugees out of Jalozai, relief agencies have started dismantling assistance infrastructure in parts of the camp vacated by the departing population. Based on UNHCR estimates, Jalozai will be completely empty by the end of January if security or other considerations in the next two weeks do not disrupt the operation.

The remaining population in Jalozai comprises minority tribes who have requested relocation to the Shalman site in Kyber agency. Families have indicated a strong interest in shifting to sites located near return routes to Afghanistan. They argue that this would give them a "head start" when they ultimately decide to return home after winter.

Once transfers from Jalozai are complete, UNHCR will start to move larger numbers of homeless Afghans from in and around Peshawar city. Staff in Peshawar have so far noted an increase in the numbers of people registering for relocation to the new camps. This development may indicate that information from the families hosted in the new camps is trickling back to Peshawar's refugee community, and that most families are satisfied with the level of assistance they receive in the new camps.

In Baluchistan's urban areas, large numbers of Afghan refugees face acute poverty. They live in miserable conditions, unable to find employment and access to basic services. As the economy in Baluchistan remains weak, the local population tends to target Afghan refugees, creating a generally unsafe and hostile environment in urban areas.

To increase assistance and support to Afghan refugees in the cities, UNHCR and CAR began relocating volunteering families to the Mohammad Kheil camp. So far, over 40,000 persons have been relocated to Mohammad Kheil. An additional 733 ethnic minorities (i.e., Uzbeks) were transferred to the nearby Latifabad camp in Quetta district.

UNHCR continues to register refugees as they are transferred to the new camps in Baluchistan and NWFP. As part of the overall effort to harmonize registration with a voluntary repatriation program, UNHCR staff have begun collecting information on skills and education. Combined with standard registration information such as place of origin, family size and vulnerability, the exercise will provide valuable data for the return and rehabilitation program in Afghanistan.

A UNHCR team from the Kandahar and Quetta Offices is traveling to Spin Boldak today to assess the camp population together with other aid agencies. We hope to find ways to assist those who wish to return home from the precarious border area.

UNHCR re-opened its field office in Spin Boldak on Saturday. The office had been completely looted and destroyed. But on Saturday the local authorities immediately sent workers to clean up our office and to repair shattered windows. Thanks to the local efforts, the office is now operational allowing our national staff to return to his post.

Also in southern Afghanistan, an international staff member is on stand-by in Iran, to re-establish our office in Zaranj. An estimated 4,000 displaced people are in Zaranj, many of whom had been transferred by the authorities from over-crowded Makaki camp near the border with Iran.