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. Last Updated: 07/27/2016

Afghan Refugees Stranded by Protests

KABUL, Afghanistan -- Protests by poppy farmers furious over a new government anti-drug campaign have stranded thousands of Afghan refugees seeking to return home from Pakistan, a UN spokesman said Tuesday.

Adding to the problems, an explosion Monday that tore through a crowd lining a road to welcome Afghanistan's defense minister temporarily closed down a distribution center that hands out aid to returning refugees in the eastern Afghan city of Jalalabad, said Yusuf Hassan, spokesman for the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees.

About 14,000 Afghan refugees traveling in 700 vehicles were stranded between the Pakistani border town of Torkham and Jalalabad, he said. Shenwari tribesmen opposed to a government program to eradicate the opium-producing poppy crop started blocking the highway between the two cities Monday, pelting vehicles with rocks, according to witnesses.

The protest came as Afghanistan's interim administration began offering cash to growers of heroin-producing poppy in exchange for eradicating the crop, saying it will destroy the flowers itself if farmers do not comply. The farmers have said the money being offered will not even cover their costs, let alone the money the narcotics could fetch if sold on the open market.

The program has been linked to several violent incidents across Afghanistan, including the killing of at least one member of a government team inspecting the poppy fields along the Pakistan-Afghan Highway.

In the southern province of Helmand, which produces the majority of the country's poppies, government forces opened fire Sunday when a protest of some 2,000 farmers got out of control, said Shah Wali, a local official. Eight farmers were killed and 16 wounded, said provincial Governor Sher Mohammed.

The explosion in Jalalabad, which authorities say was an assassination attempt against Defense Minister Mohammed Fahim, may also be linked to the eradication program.

The bomb, which exploded as Fahim's convoy rolled into the city Monday, killed at least four people and injured 18 -- mostly onlookers who showed up to watch Fahim's arrival. The minister, who was not injured, was on a trip to meet with local commanders and tribal leaders to discuss the poppy eradication program, among other issues.

Iran and Pakistan have been hosting about 3.5 million refugees who fled two decades of war, poverty and drought in Afghanistan.

A voluntary repatriation program with Pakistan that began March 1 has helped 160,000 refugees return home. The UN refugee agency said about 165,000 more refugees from Pakistan and 55,000 from Iran have gone home without the agency's help.

The repatriation effort has suffered several setbacks since Monday, Hassan said. In addition to the 14,000 refugees stranded on the Torkham-Jalalabad road, between 20,000 and 25,000 refugees seeking to return home from Pakistan's North West Frontier Province have been blocked by local residents protesting a government decision to cut off electricity in the area, Hassan said.