UNHCR denies influx of refugees

A UNHCR official in the Iranian capital, Tehran, on Wednesday denied a claim by the government that more than 20,000 Afghan refugees had fled across the border from Afghanistan since the beginning of US-led air strikes on Sunday.

"Based on the reports we are receiving from our field office in Milak, and also our sub-office in Zahedan, there has been no cross-border influx or major population movements after US-strikes on Afghanistan," the UNHCR spokesman, Mohammad Nouri, told IRIN.

"There is always the possibility that Afghans could have trickled across, but there has been no sizeable influx," he said.

Nouri's comments follow Tuesday's report by IRNA, the official Iranian news agency, quoting the country's deputy health minister, Mohammad-Esmail Akbari, as saying that "since the beginning of the American attack on Afghanistan more than 20,000 Afghans have crossed the border into Sistan-Baluchestan", in southeastern Iran.

Akbari warned of a possible epidemic as a result of refugee influxes and called on the international community to help not only the refugees but also the countries of the region to meet their health requirements.

Meanwhile, Iranian Foreign Minister Kamal Kharrazi told a press conference that the US and British military campaign would certainly intensify the flood of refugees coming into the country.

According to an AFP report on Tuesday, Kharrazi said: "It is expected that the UN and other countries provide help (to us) and aid the Afghan victims of these attacks," he said. At the same time, he reiterated Tehran's preparedness to provide all necessary means to assist the refugees on Afghan soil, the report added.

Iran says it currently hosts over two million Afghan refugees who fled their war-torn country over the past two decades. The government has sealed its 915-km border with Afghanistan in an effort to avert another flood of refugees entering the country.