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Department of Public Information . News and Media Division . New York

12 March 1999

The Secretary-General had decided that United Nations international staff would return to Afghanistan, Sergio Vieira de Mello, United Nations Under-Secretary-General for Humanitarian Affairs and Emergency Relief Coordinator, announced to correspondents at a Headquarters press briefing today. They would return in limited numbers determined by humanitarian priorities and by the capacity to evacuate them. A prerequisite for the return was that there be field security officers in each location.

This decision followed positive assessments given by security assessment missions sent to Afghanistan, and the approval of the inter-agency standing committee that he chaired, Mr. Vieira de Mello said. As a result, United Nations international personnel would be returning for rotating three-week periods.

The United Nations had had to leave Afghanistan in August last year following a series of incidents, in particular, the assassination of two locally recruited staff from the World Food Programme (WFP) and the Office of the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR) in Jalalabad, and the murder of Italian Lieutenant-Colonel Carmine Calo in the streets of Kabul, he explained.

Since then, a series of discussions had been held with Taliban authorities, and an additional security protocol had been signed on 24 October last year, he said. Those meetings had taken place in Kandahar, Kabul, Islamabad and New York. Concerns not just about the general security situation, but also about very specific threats in Taliban-controlled territory had been raised. Repeated assurances that it was safe for the United Nations to go back had been given, and the Taliban representatives had stated that they would ensure that the lives of all staff of the United Nations and non-governmental organizations (NGOs) would be safe and protected by Taliban security forces.

In February, a technical observation mission, headed by a specialist in judicial processes and investigations, had been sent to assess the status of investigations into the three murders, he continued. It had concluded that progress had been made in the investigations and that the Taliban authorities had made concerted efforts to meet the United Nations basic requirement -- the satisfactory conduct and conclusion of those investigations. That said, the United Nations would continue to press for a conclusion and a trial of those responsible.

On the basis of that progress, the security assessment missions had been sent, he said. They had visited Kabul, Herat, Kandahar and Jalalabad to determine whether the environment was conducive to the return of international staff. Mazar-e Sharif and Bamian would follow.

The plan was that several international staff would be sent back to Kabul early next week, Mr. Vieira de Mello said. The United Nations already had a presence in Kabul in the form of a small emergency team which was assisting the population following the earthquake three weeks ago in the vicinity of Kabul. That presence would be increased, with the addition of a regional security officer and representatives of the WFP, the United Nations Children's Fund (UNICEF), the World Health Organization (WHO), the United Nations Centre for Human Settlements (Habitat), and the Office of the High Commissioner for Human Rights. The new Special Rapporteur for Human Rights in Afghanistan, Kamal Hossain -- who had been at Headquarters this week -- would also be visiting Kabul early next week.

In the following week, the plan was to reopen the Kandahar office, he said, with the return of a field security officer and up to eight international staff from different operational agencies. Immediately afterwards, the offices in Herat and Jalalabad would be reopened. Those two were of particular importance to the UNHCR, as they played a key role in promoting repatriation and receiving returnees. A significant number had returned from both Iran and Pakistan in recent months.

The further deployment of staff to Mazar-e Sharif, Bamian and other locations would depend on security assessments in the coming months, he said. The security situation around Bamian remained very unstable, and there had been so many incidents around Mazar-e Sharif since 1997 that the United Nations would only make a careful return there.

Although the decision had been taken to return to Afghanistan, he remained deeply concerned with the security situation, he said, and the United Nations planned to continue to monitor and evaluate the security environment as the days and weeks went by. In addition, he had requested, on behalf of the United Nations, that the authorities remained fully committed to the conditions set out in the security protocol signed in October. He had met yesterday with the Taliban representative in New York, Abdul Mujahid, and given him a letter to Mullah Wakil in Kandahar stressing that. The conditions included a Taliban commitment to make further progress on, and find a speedy resolution to, the investigations into the three murders of United Nations staff.

As soon as the United Nations returned to Kabul, negotiations that were interrupted in August last year within the framework of the Joint Consultative Committee would resume, he said. That Committee had three subcommittees at work: one on health, a second on education -- both attempting to achieve measurable results in terms of equal opportunities for men and women and girls and boys, in those two vital sectors -- and the third working on improving relations between the Taliban and the non-governmental community. Relations had gone through a crisis in July last year when the Taliban had ordered the relocation of all NGOs to a polytechnical school in the vicinity of Kabul.

In response to a question, Mr. Vieira de Mello said the presence in Afghanistan of Osama bin Laden raised security concerns for returning United Nations workers. The issue had been raised with the Taliban leadership in Kandahar, particularly when the Resident and Humanitarian Coordinator, Erick de Mul, visited there in early January. It had also been raised by the Secretary-General's Special Envoy, Lakhdar Brahimi, in Kandahar and in Islamabad, and he himself had raised it repeatedly with the Taliban representative in New York. Assurances had that Mr. bin Laden was not, in the Taliban representatives words, "above the law" in areas under Taliban control. Assurances had been given that neither he nor the group he led would be allowed to put the lives of international staff of humanitarian agencies in danger.

Asked what steps had been taken to support education, Mr. Vieira de Mello explained that since late 1997 the United Nations had been trying to implement a project proposed by the United Nations Development Programme (UNDP) and Norway had put to the Taliban, now called the "Eleven plus Eleven" schools project -- supporting eleven schools for girls and eleven for boys, some in Kabul and the rest in Kandahar. The precise location of those schools, their needs in terms of construction and repair, and timetables for their opening and functioning had been under discussion with the Ministry of Planning and the Ministry of Education in Kabul in August, and that discussion would resume.

He said discussions would also recommence on health issues -- which institutions would be open to women and girls for treatment, and which training institutions would be open to women for medical and paramedical training. Progress had been made in both areas before the United Nations departure.

The issue of the edict that required Moslem women working with the United Nations or NGOs to be accompanied by a male relative while working inside Taliban-controlled areas was unresolved, he said, in response to another question. However, it was one of the issues on the negotiation agenda and would be raised when negotiations recommenced in Kabul.

Asked how many United Nations international staff would be going to Afghanistan, he explained that he could not be precise, as numbers were limited by evacuation ceilings. However, he did not think there would be more than eight or nine international staff in Kabul in the initial phase -- perhaps less. Eight would return to Kandahar. In Herat, there would be between 10 and 12. Those were ideal figures; not all would be there next week.

The rotation system he had referred to meant two teams would rotate, each spending three weeks at a time in-country, he said. That would be the case until the Regional and Humanitarian Coordinator in Islamabad determined that the security situation was sufficiently reliable for teams to remain for longer periods or even permanently, he explained in response to a question. In answer to another question, he said there were currently three staff in the earthquake assistance team in Kabul.

Asked whether a time limit by which the murders must be solved or United Nations staff would again leave had been set, he said that no red lines had been drawn. However, progress in the judiciary process would be closely monitored. A mission had done precisely that in late January and early February. He was in favour of another such mission, but when would be up to the country team.

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