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UNHCR mourns loss of Vieira de Mello and team

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UNHCR mourns loss of Vieira de Mello and team

20 August 2003

20 August 2003

GENEVA - The United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees today reacted with shock and sadness at the news of the tragic death of UN Special Representative Sergio Vieira de Mello and at least 17 other persons at the UN's Baghdad headquarters, following a bomb attack a day earlier.

"The UN refugee agency is shocked by this tragic loss," said High Commissioner Ruud Lubbers.

"All too often it is the best people who are sent to the most challenging places," he continued. "Sergio Vieira de Mello and his team were certainly the best the United Nations had to offer, all of them colleagues devoted to the UN's humanitarian mission, paying the ultimate price in the process," Lubbers said.

Vieira de Mello began his United Nations career in 1969, joining the UN refugee agency in Geneva. He later served the agency in a number of posts in Africa, Latin America, Europe, and Asia before taking up senior positions on behalf of the UN Secretary-General, serving as the world body's Emergency Relief Coordinator and High Commissioner for Human Rights.

"Sergio Vieira de Mello was a true gentleman who garnered the respect of adversaries, a tough negotiator who fought for human rights and the dignity of the downtrodden," said Lubbers. "But for so many of us at the UN refugee agency who knew his friendly smile and warm handshake, Sergio was a dear friend."

Lubbers was en route for Kinshasa, the capital of the Democratic Republic of the Congo, where he planned meetings with President Joseph Kabila and senior ministers. He will travel to Angola on Thursday to review the pace of the repatriation of Angolan refugees and meet President José dos Santos and other officials. The High Commissioner had left Geneva Tuesday afternoon on a ten-day, four-country mission to Africa, but is considering curtailing the tour and returning to his agency's Geneva headquarters.

UN refugee agency staff in Geneva and colleagues worldwide plan to halt work for a moment of silence on Wednesday in memory of Vieira de Mello and other UN staff missing or dead following Tuesday's blast.

UNHCR has accounted for all of its personnel in Baghdad, one of whom was lightly injured while working inside the UN headquarters facility at the Canal Hotel. The refugee agency's main offices in Iraq were in a separate location. UNHCR operates nine offices in Iraq with 105 staff in Iraq, including 30 persons based in Baghdad.

A refugee repatriation convoy from Saudi Arabia's Rafha camp that was planned to leave on Tuesday night was postponed following the blast in the Iraqi capital. Some 4,700 refugees are sheltered in Rafha camp, most have said that they want to return to Iraq as soon as possible.