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Syria Opens Territory to Relief Agencies

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NEGOTIATIONS are under way for the repatriation of 2,500 Vietnamese from Iraq. The workers, most of whom are now in the northern Iraqi city of Mosul, are expected to cross into Syria within two weeks. According to international relief officials, Iraq is nearing agreement on release of the foreign workers. The refugees would be airlifted from Damascus, Syria, to Hanoi, Vietnam.

The Vietnamese would be the first organized group to make use of facilities now established near the border with Iraq. Vietnam's President Vo Chi Cong sent a message last weekend to Iraq's President Saddam Hussein, asking him to allow Vietnamese, especially female medics, to return home from Iraq as soon as possible.

To date, only small numbers of Sudanese and Somali refugees have crossed into Syria. The bulk of foreigners leaving Iraq have fled across its eastern and southern borders to Iran and Jordan.

Others have gone north, into Turkey. But the reported Iraqi mining of that frontier has heightened expectations that more refugees will seek to leave the country through Syria.

``We are preparing to assist all those people who come out of Iraq,'' says Alfredo Miccio, representative of the International Organization for Migration in Geneva. The intergovernmental agency is responsible for the transport of refugees en route to repatriation.

``It could be 10,000, but it could be 100,000. It's extremely difficult to make forecasts,'' he says, adding that the refugee numbers expected from Iraq are unlikely to include Iraqi nationals. ``I don't think the Iraqis will easily open their borders to their own people. It will be a spontaneous refugee movement, but only by foreigners.''

In the meantime, United Nations personnel are continuing preparations for an influx of up to 100,000 refugees to Syria. The UN has made plans for up to eight transit camps, two of which are already in place. Tent camps have been erected near the border towns of al-Haul and, to the south, Abu Kemal.

Abu Kemal faces the western Iraqi border town of al-Qaim, where Iraq has chemical and nuclear research facilities. Iraq says that coalition bombing missions have targeted the site. UN officials inside Syrian territory say they have heard explosions from the other side of the border.

The Paris-based Medicins Sans Fronti`eres (MSF) has also sent a seven-person delegation to coordinate medical support for the camps. The arrival of MSF marks the first time Syria has allowed a voluntary relief agency to work in its territory.

Syria, until recently regarded as a hard-line, anti-American state, has contributed troops to the United States-led coalition against Iraq's occupation of Kuwait. Its participation in the coalition has led to a marked warming in relations with Western governments. Western officials report that the Syrian government has so far ``fully cooperated'' with relief plans.


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