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UN refugee agency extends Western Sahara family visit initiative

UN refugee agency extends Western Sahara family visit initiative

The United Nations refugee agency today began a month-long series of flights between refugee camps in Algeria and the city of Smarra in Western Sahara, expanding its two-month-old family visit programme.

Smarra is the third Western Saharan city to be included in the confidence-building initiative, which started 5 March and began with flights between the Algerian city of Tindouf and Laayoune, the capital of the Territory, and later expanding to Dakhla.

More than 420 people - both refugees and residents of the Western Sahara Territory - have participated in the weekly flights so far, many of them seeing family members for the first time in decades, a spokesman for the UN High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR) said.

"We expect 26 people to leave Smarra on this morning's special UN flight to Tindouf, where they will visit relatives residing in the five windswept refugee camps. Twenty-eight refugees are registered to fly to Smarra this afternoon," spokesman Kris Janowski told a press briefing in Geneva.

UNHCR's confidence-building initiative, which has been in the making for more than half a decade, first got underway in January when it established phone lines linking people in the refugee camps with their relatives in Western Sahara.

"We are extremely pleased that the entire operation is going so well and that the family visit phase is bringing so much satisfaction to everyone involved," Mr. Janowski said.