WASHINGTON, Jan 4: The number of people returning to Afghanistan from Pakistan through the Torkham and Chaman crossing points has dropped to about half the high level of nearly 4,000 per day reported last week.

The number varies each day, and was highest immediately after the installation of the new interim administration in Kabul, according to US officials.

Most of those returning are men, which is seen as an indication that they first want to test the situation in their homeland before fetching their families, probably around spring.

Anywhere from 60,000 to 80,000 Afghans have gone back to their country from Pakistan and Iran, a figure that compares with 150,000 new refugees who have moved since Sept 11 — a significant figure, US officials say, but considerably less than earlier feared.

A special briefing on the humanitarian situation in Afghanistan held at the State Department on Thursday afternoon was also told that the World Food Programme distributed 116,000 tons of food aid last month, more than twice the amount distributed in November. This brings the total of food sent by the WFP since October to well over 200,000 tons. US Agency for International Development administrator Andrew S. Natsios said 76 per cent of the food sent had gone into villages.

It was claimed that the food distribution had proceeded largely unhindered and the threat of a widespread famine had been averted. However, media reports here on Friday suggested that the situation was far from stable, and in Jalalabad food distribution resulted in a riot, with local commanders being accused of creating shortages by cornering most of the supplies for their own use.

Mr Natsios revealed details of a new information programme started last month under which 20,000 battery-operated radio sets have been distributed among Afghan villages, with another 10,000 sets to follow. The programme is said to be primarily aimed at disseminating information about availability of food and medical help, and to encourage people to report to their village heads on gangs interfering with relief supplies.

The USAID chief said Afghanistan had always been a “radio culture,” and people had depended on the radio for both information and entertainment. The new programme, which is run with the help of the language services of Voice of America, aims to take advantage of this fact of Afghan society. Daily bulletins produced in Pushtu and Dar are distributed to local radio stations in Afghanistan as well as being broadcast on VOA and the BBC.

When it was pointed out that village chiefs and elders might not like the increased social awareness that the information programme was likely to create among Afghan villagers, Mr Natsios said so far the elders were cooperating with the initiative.

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