Afghan party leader appeals for end to Iranian deportation of compatriots
TEHRAN, March 15 (AFP) - Afghan leader Gulbeddin Hekmatyar has appealed to Iran's leadership to end a mass deportation of Afghan refugees to their homeland, an aide said Wednesday.
The aide confirmed a report from the United Nations refugee agency, the UNHCR, that Iranian police had arrested hundreds of Afghan men, women and children living in one of Tehran's main suburbs, and embarked on a "massive deportation" exercise.
The aide said Hekmatyar, chief of the Hezb-e Eslami group, had written to express his extreme concern to Iran's supreme leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei and President Mohammad Khatami, after a meeting with other Afghan leaders in Iran.
A witness said the roundup had begun last Friday in south Tehran, with individuals and whole familes being arrested and sent to a camp at Askarabad near the capital.
From there they are put in buses and sent off to southeast Iran, before being sent over the border in the Nimruz region of western Afghanistan which is not under the control of the Taliban militia.
The witness said workers, refugees and those without proper identity papers are being picked up indiscriminately. Police are even stopping buses and checking who was aboard.
UNHCR spokesman Jacques Franquin said in Geneva Tuesday he was unable to specify exactly how many refugees had been deported, saying that those concerned "do not live in camps but amongst the Iranian people, and so are not directly looked after by the UNHCR."
On February 22 the UNHCR said it had agreed with Tehran to work toward the voluntary repatriation of the some 1.4 million Afghan refugees living in Iran.
Those who did not have proper papers would be given six months to register their presence and either ask to be sent home or submit a request for permission to stay in Iran.
UNHCR spokesman Kris Janowski said it was not known how many would volunteer under the new policy, which was "designed to put an end to forcible repatriations."
The UNHCR would review the cases and would also help set up transit camps in Iranian provinces to register the refugees.
Most of the Afghans in Iran are widely scattered, with only a minority currently living in camps. Many Afghans were considered economic rather than political immigrants.
In the past year, 90,000 have returned home, most of them forcibly.
Janowski also said the UNHCR wanted to expand its presence in Afghanistan to supervise conditions surrounding the repatriations which, he said, would be difficult given the closed nature of Afghan society and ethnic differences between regions.
Iran is strongly opposed to the Taliban regime which controls most of Afghanistan and still recognises the ousted government of Burhanuddin Rabbani, in which Hekmatyar was prime minister when it was expelled from Kabul in 1996.
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