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Cold kills 17 in Afghan refugee camps: Amnesty

Afghan women wait to receive winter supplies from the UNHCR at a camp on the outskirts of Kabul December 27, 2012
Internally displaced Afghan women wait to receive winter supplies from the UNHCR at the Charhi Qambar refugee camp on the outskirts of Kabul December 27, 2012. Severe cold weather sweeping through camps for people displaced by the Afghan war has killed 17

Severe cold weather sweeping through camps for people displaced by the Afghan war has killed 17 people, mostly children, Amnesty International said Tuesday.

The deaths occurred in the first two weeks of January in Kabul and Herat provinces, which host most of the country's half a million internally displaced people.

"These deaths were a preventable tragedy," Amnesty's deputy Asia Pacific director Polly Truscott said in a statement.

Last winter about 100 people, mostly children and the elderly, lost their lives in the camps and the Afghan government and international donors had been urged to prevent a repeat of the tragedy.

The latest deaths show "the inadequate co-ordination of winter assistance to hundreds of thousands of people living in displacement camps across the country," Truscott said.

"The fact that children and the elderly are among the dead highlights the need to protect those groups that are most vulnerable to the harsh winter conditions."

In the western province of Herat, assistance reached refugees returning to Afghanistan from abroad, but aid to those internally displaced was apparently blocked after pressure from the provincial governor's office, Amnesty said.

The local authorities were said to be concerned that offering aid to displaced people would encourage them to stay in camps permanently instead of returning to their home provinces.

Decades of conflict have left Afghanistan with one of the highest internally displaced populations in the world. The UN refugee agency estimates it at 450,000 but Amnesty said the actual number is likely to be much higher.

"There is a desperate need to act now to prevent further deaths this winter. Afghanistan and its donor partners should remember that safeguarding lives in these settlements is an obligation under international law," Truscott said.

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