Uzbekistan forces out refugee agency

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The Independent Online

The UN refugee agency, which has sought to block the return home of Uzbek refugees, has been given a month to leave Uzbekistan.

The Uzbek authorities have accused the UN High Commissioner for Refugees of protecting criminals and terrorists by opposing deportations of Uzbek asylum-seekers from Kyrgyzstan.

The UNHCR said it regretted the decision, but would comply with the order. "It's very rare that an office gets closed down," said Astrid van Genderen Stort, a spokeswoman.

"Sometimes an employee is told to leave if there is a fight between the individual and the government, but not the entire agency operation," she said. But, she added, "UNHCR works in countries upon the invitation of a country. If a country doesn't want us to work there any more, we can't go and impose ourselves."

At the centre of tensions between the government and the agency have been hundreds of refugees from Uzbekistan who fled to Kyrgyzstan last May following the bloody suppression of an uprising in the eastern Uzbek city of Andijan.

The UNHCR recognised most as refugees and evacuated 439 of the Uzbeks from Kyrgyzstan to Romania. In recent weeks, the dispute has come down to four Uzbek refugees, two of whom were denied asylum by the Kyrgyz Supreme Court in February despite their being granted refugee status by the UN. The UNHCR has urged the Kyrgyz government not to return the four to Uzbekistan, where rights groups say they might be tortured.