Afghan refugees fear war, reluctant to go home

By Saeed Ali Achakzai
Friday, February 2, 2007; 9:20 AM

PIR ALIZAI CAMP, Pakistan (Reuters) - Pakistan says its Afghan refugee camps are a hotbed of support for a resurgent Taliban and they should be closed, but it seems no one in the Pir Alizai camp wants to go home.

A sprawling settlement of about 150,000 refugees crammed into mud houses about 50 km (30 miles) from the Afghan border, Pir Alizai was set up soon after Soviet forces invaded Afghanistan in 1979.

Nearly 30 years later and Afghanistan is still at war, but Pakistan is now determined to close the camp, and other similar settlements, saying they have become sanctuaries for Taliban battling the Afghan government and U.S. and NATO troops across the border.

"There's no peace in Afghanistan, we can't go there in this situation," said Haji Zardad Khan, a 55-year-old resident of the camp. "We'd even be willing to go to Pakistani jails rather than go back to our country."

Violence surged in Afghanistan last year to its most intense since U.S.-led forces ousted the Taliban in 2001. Afghanistan and its allies say the Taliban's strength is partly a result of safe havens in Pakistan.

NATO and Pakistan agreed this week that three million Afghan refugees in Pakistan posed a security threat and needed to be repatriated.

Afghanistan has struggled to cope with the return of more than 4.6 million refugees since the Taliban were overthrown.

Afghanistan, Pakistan and the U.N. refugee agency agree repatriation of the remainder will be voluntary and gradual. Afghanistan would be overwhelmed if Pakistan started forcing back large numbers, aid officials say.

Four camps in Pakistan are due to be closed soon but there are numerous others -- small and large -- scattered across border provinces.

Pakistani President Pervez Musharraf told a news conference in the city of Rawalpindi on Friday the camps, particularly those in Baluchistan province, like Pir Alizai, were Taliban havens.

"We don't want them here, take them away, let them go back to Afghanistan," he said.


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