NOUAKCHOTT, Nov 12 (Reuters) Thousands of Mauritanian refugees in Senegal could soon go home, nearly 20 years after they fled ethnic purges, under a deal signed today by the two West African neighbours and the UN refugee agency UNHCR.
Hundreds of black Mauritanians were killed in 1989 in ethnic purges by the Arab-dominated government of former dictator Maaouya Ould Sid'Ahmed Taya, who was ousted two years ago.
Between 60,000 and 80,000 people fled abroad, mostly south into Senegal, spawning what United Nations officials have called one of Africa's most protracted refugee situations.
An estimated 35,000 have drifted back on their own initiative over the years, and a new government elected since Taya's overthrow has asked the rest to come home.
The Senegalese and Mauritanian interior ministers and UNHCR agreed to run a repatriation programme lasting until December 2008, starting with a first group of 1,000 returnees in the coming weeks, UNHCR said in a statement.
''In all, 12,600 refugees have expressed a wish to be repatriated as soon as possible,'' it said.
UNHCR, which appealed last August for funds to repatriate the Mauritanians, said it had set up reception centres for the returnees in the southern border towns of Kaedi and Rosso, with contributions from France, Italy and the United States.
The programme, which is starting later than initially planned due to a lack of funding commitments, aims to ensure ''the sustainable reintegration of those repatriated into Mauritania's social fabric'', it said.
Some refugees have said they will not return home without guarantees of compensation for lost land, jobs and houses. They have also demanded those responsible for the purges be tried.
Taya's government took advantage of border disputes with Senegal over grazing and fishing rights to conduct an ethnic purge, forcing out members of the black African minority who make up around a third of the population, alongside white and black Moors.
Taya was toppled in a bloodless coup in 2005 after two decades in power, and has himself taken refuge in Qatar.
President Sidi Mohamed Ould Cheikh Abdallahi, who took office in April after democratic elections replacing an army junta, has promised to promote racial harmony and justice.
But many are doubtful about the chances of equality in a nation where, despite the official banning of slavery, human rights groups say many poor black people are still enslaved, serving their masters as herders and domestic servants.
Reuters PJ DB2248