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UN agency to begin repatriation of thousands to Equateur

NAIROBI, 27 Apr 2005 (IRIN) - The first 100 of some 58,000 refugees who had been living in the Republic of Congo (ROC) in the past six years are due to begin returning to the Democratic Republic of Congo (DRC)'s Equateur Province on Wednesday, a spokeswoman for the UN refugees agency, UNHCR, announced.

The spokeswoman, Jennifer Pagonis, said on Tuesday in Geneva that the operation would be "one of the most logistically challenging major refugee voluntary repatriation programmes" the agency had undertaken anywhere in the world.

"The rugged return journey includes crossing dense rain forest, numerous waterways and extremely rough roads," she said at the news conference.

Some 8,000 refugees have already registered for repatriation. She said that by the end of 2006 the UNHCR hoped that 24,000 DRC refugees in ROC would have returned home to Equateur.

However, she said, the challenges were immense. She said many of the refugees could only be reached by boat as they had been living along the Oubangui River. The river, which is vast and difficult to navigate, serves as a border between the two countries.

"Locally built wooden boats will collect the refugees from the river sites and then proceed on a four-to-six-hour journey up the Oubangui River to [the DRC town of] Libenge," Pagonis said. "There, returnees will stay overnight at a transit centre, be given hot meals, go through immigration procedures and screening for medical and social assistance."

For the long-term, the returnees would also receive construction tools, food, kitchen utensils, mosquito nets and plastic sheeting. Trucks will then transport them from Libenge town to their areas of origin.

"In some cases, the last part of the journey will have to be made on foot due to the lack of passable roads," Pagonis said.

UNHRC said it had helped 2,000 refugees since 2004 return to Equateur from the neighbouring Central African Republic.

"The situation in Equateur has remained relatively stable over the past two years and many refugees have expressed their wish to return home," Pagonis said.

The return movement from Betou in ROC to Equateur Province is expected to last through 2007.

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