ISLAMABAD, Dec 12: The voluntary return of refugees from Pakistan has started with about 3,300 crossing the Chaman border into Afghanistan during the last two days, United Nations officials said.

Speaking at a news conference here on Wednesday, United Nations High Commission for Refugees spokesperson Fatoumata Kaba said the number of Afghans heading for Pakistan was going down while return movements were on the rise.

She said that in one of the largest return movements observed, nearly 1,500 persons crossed back into Afghanistan on Monday and up to 1,800 persons on Tuesday.

The returning refugees are believed to be heading for Kandahar, Herat, Ghazni, Zabul and Kabul, she said.

The UNHCR spokesperson said there were some four million Afghan refugees in the region and even if a quarter of them were to return soon, that would be one million people returning to a massively destroyed country.

The spokesperson said the UNHCR planned to restart its rehabilitation projects, including those that allowed returning refugees to start a fresh life.

Ms Kaba said the refugee agency was also planning the official voluntary return of Afghans from Pakistan. The return of refugees was likely to start on a large scale during spring, she said and added that the UNHCR would collect data on the refugees’ places of origin, profession and age, as well as other demographic data till then.

The information would be shared with the UNHCR partners in order to properly plan assistance for the returnees, she said.

The UNHCR spokesperson said the prospects of a massive influx of Afghan refugees into Pakistan were receding with the ongoing peace settlement in Afghanistan. However, she said, the UNHCR would continue to assist those who had entered Pakistan, in the camps it had established at Roghani and Mohamed Khel in Balochistan, as well as at Kotkai and Old Bagzai in the NWFP.

Nearly 200,000 new Afghan refugees are estimated to have entered Pakistan, mainly through illegal crossing points, since Sept 11.

Unicef spokesperson Chulho Hyun said that in a worst-case scenario, 100,000 children may die in six months unless enough emergency relief aid reached them quickly. The challenge during the winter would be to minimize the loss of young lives, he said.

The spokesperson said that Unicef office in Kandahar had been vandalised by unknown persons.

He said that in the fluid situation of the past weeks, unknown elements had entered the Unicef office and removed computers, furniture and other property. The whereabouts of the office vehicles were still unclear, he said.

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