Pakistanis seek refuge, relief in southeast

Sectarian clashes between Shia and Sunni extremists in Kurram Agency, in the Federally Administered Tribal Areas of the North West Frontier Province of Pakistan, have displaced hundreds of families to neighbouring Afghanistan, Afghan officials and the UN Refugee Agency (UNHCR) said on 3 January.

At least 500 Pakistani families (about 3,000 individuals) have moved to several locations in Khost and Paktia provinces, in southeastern Afghanistan, provincial officials and the office of Afghan President Hamid Karzai confirmed.

Most of the refugees are Pashtoons - elderly people, women and children - who have sought refuge with local people and/or have set up tents in different places, said Din Mohammad Darwish, a government spokesman in Paktia Province.

Afghan President Hamid Karzai has instructed provincial officials and other relevant government bodies in Kabul to urgently provide relief to the refugees, according to a press release issued from his media office.

"Afghans should repay the hospitality they received during their long years of migration in Pakistan," President Karzai is quoted in the press release as saying.

Millions of Afghans migrated to Pakistan after their country was invaded by the former Soviet Union in 1979. Over two million Afghans are still registered as refugees in Pakistan, the UNHCR says.

''Afghans should repay the hospitality they received during their long years of migration in Pakistan.''

Needs assessment under way

Disaster response committees in Khost and Paktia provinces are currently working to determine the exact number of refugees and assess their urgent needs, officials reported on 3 January.

Shelter, food, blankets and medicine are the major requirements, which should be delivered urgently, according to an official involved in needs assessment operations in Khost Province.

"The weather is very cold and some refugee children have been affected by winter diseases," said Besmillah Gul, head of the provincial refugee affairs department in Khost.

In an urgent response, provincial departments of the Afghan Red Crescent Society distributed over 500 blankets, jerry cans and dozens of tents to some of the most vulnerable refugees.

UN agencies have also promised help.

"UNHCR has dispatched truckloads of non-food items to supplement those stocks that have already been distributed. They will be released as soon as details of needs and locations are finalised and a distribution plan completed in close coordination with other actors," Mohammad Nader Farhar, a UNHCR spokesman in Kabul, told IRIN.

The UNHCR, meanwhile, said it was committed to assisting and protecting refugees, and would help Pakistani refugees through its existing budget for Afghanistan and other resources.

The UN World Food Programme (WFP) will also deliver food aid to vulnerable refugees once assessments are conducted and relief is demanded by provincial authorities, said Ebadullah Ebadi, a WFP spokesman in Kabul.