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Lubbers says UNHCR is prepared to help in Sudan returns

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Lubbers says UNHCR is prepared to help in Sudan returns

12 November 2003

12 November 2003

MATINGA, SUDAN - High Commissioner Ruud Lubbers today told John Garang, leader of the Sudan People's Liberation Movement (SPLM), the UN refugee agency is prepared to help in the return of more than half a million refugees once a peace agreement is reached in Kenya.

"We started making plans months ago, and we would like to be able to work with you," Lubbers told Garang during a meeting in the south Sudan town of Matinga near the Kenyan border.

Lubbers outlined the refugee agency's plans for the repatriation of more than 570,000 Sudanese refugees. He stressed to Garang the need for a sustainable return and the safety of aid workers.

Garang gave assurances of co-operation and appealed for the immediate implementation of reconstruction projects in south Sudan.

On Tuesday, Lubbers met with Sudanese President Omar Al Bashir in the Sudanese capital, Khartoum, where he also discussed UNHCR plans for the return of refugees. The refugee agency chief said that displaced persons in areas of refugee return could also benefit from these initiatives.

Lubbers is on a four-nation tour of Africa. He earlier visited Burundi and Tanzania and is scheduled to continue to Eritrea on Thursday to review operations for the reintegration of Eritrean returnees.

Sudan's 20-year-old civil war has uprooted some 4 million people and sent 570,000 Sudanese fleeing into seven neighbouring countries. The number includes 223,000 in Uganda, 88,000 in Ethiopia and 69,000 in the Democratic Republic of the Congo.

Lubbers commended the SPLM leadership for the progress so far achieved in the peace talks at Naivasha, some 100 km north of the Kenyan capital, Nairobi. The talks are currently in recess. But he cautioned that the reconstruction needs in south Sudan were massive and would likely present new challenges.

"You are coming to the end of one phase," said Lubbers, referring to the peace negotiations. "As soon as you reach a peace agreement, you may face new challenges of reconstruction."

One of the UN refugee agency's immediate priorities, he said, is the re-opening of at least three offices in the south after nearly two decades of absence from the war-ravaged region.

Large areas of south Sudan have been devastated during the war. Many areas have no roads or functioning social services, such as schools, health care, water and sanitation systems. Civil administration and law enforcement are rudimentary.

Lubbers was joined in Matinga by Mukesh Kapila, the UN's top relief official in Sudan, and Agnes Ban Ardenne, the Netherlands' Minister for Development Co-operation.

Lubbers flew back to the Sudanese capital, Khartoum on Wednesday afternoon. He is expected to visit refugee camps in eastern Sudan on Thursday before joining a repatriation convoy scheduled to take home some 900 Eritrean returnees to the western Eritrean town of Tesseney on Thursday. He concludes his four-nation Africa visit in the Eritrean capital, Asmara on Friday.