The Government of Uzbekistan has given the United Nations refugee agency (UNHCR), which last year helped to relocate more than 400 Uzbeks fleeing violence in their homeland, one month to close down its more than decade-long presence in the Central Asian country, the organization announced today. Expressing regret over the Government’s decision, a UNHCR official said the agency would seek to make alternative arrangements to meet ongoing needs of some 2,000 mainly Afghan refugees and asylum seekers in Uzbekistan.“The basic principles of refugee protection will continue to guide all of our activities on behalf of refugees wherever we operate, even when this might have negative consequences on our relations with a state,” UNHCR Assistant High Commissioner for Protection Erika Feller declared. “We are fully satisfied that our work in Uzbekistan has been performed in accordance with the mandate given to us by the UN General Assembly to protect and find solutions for refugees,” she added.Last July, UNHCR assisted in the evacuation to Romania of 439 Uzbeks who had fled to neighbouring Kyrgyzstan two months earlier after violence in the eastern city of Andijan may have claimed hundreds of lives.At the time the agency said it was very concerned that other Uzbeks detained by the Kyrgyz authorities not be returned to their homeland, where UN High Commissioner for Human Rights Louise Arbour has said returnees “may face an imminent risk of grave human rights violations, including torture and extra-judicial and summary executions.” Today, UNHCR said it was still concerned about the fate of four detained Uzbek refugees in Kyrgyzstan, two of whom were denied asylum following a Supreme Court decision in mid-February, and it called on the Kyrgyz Government to refrain from any action aimed at forcibly returning them to Uzbekistan.The fate of an increasing number of Uzbek asylum seekers who have been detained in the former Soviet countries of the Commonwealth of Independent States (CIS) and forcibly returned to Uzbekistan is also of continuing concern, UNHCR said.The agency opened its office in Uzbekistan in 1993 to support its operations during the 1992-93 civil war in Tajikistan and in northern Afghanistan. Its work currently focuses on the voluntary repatriation and resettlement of some 2,000 refugees mainly from Afghanistan.In a 17 March communiqué, the Uzbek Ministry of Foreign Affairs said “UNHCR has fully implemented its tasks and there are no evident reasons for its further presence in Uzbekistan. With this regard, the ministry requests UNHCR to close its office in Tashkent (the capital) within one month.”In a report in July on the Andijan violence, the High Commissioner for Human Rights noted that while the Government claimed fewer than 200 people were killed, other sources put the death toll at hundreds more. “It is not excluded, as described by eyewitnesses interviewed, that the Andijan incidents amounted to a ‘mass killing,’” it said.“In light of the consistent pattern of human rights violations in Uzbekistan reflected in the findings of United Nations human rights treaty bodies and the special procedures of the Commission on Human Rights, the international community may also consider the need for the establishment of a public mechanism of scrutiny of the situation in Uzbekistan,” the High Commissioner’s report added.