Shilluk Man

The UN refugee agency said on Friday it would repatriate more than 1,000 Sudanese refugees from Ethiopia over the next 10 days.

In a statement, the UN High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR) said it would launch the first voluntary repatriation airlift targeting mainly the Dinka and Shilluk minority ethnic groups from Ethiopia on Saturday.

"A plane carrying 50 refugees is scheduled to take off from the Gambella airport and fly to Juba, South Sudan. It will be the first of three flights scheduled to ferry 150 returning refugees on Saturday," the UNHCR said.

The Dinka refugees will be going from Fugnido and Dimma camps, and the smaller groups such as the Shilluk will depart from Bonga camp to various destinations in South Sudan, it said.

"We expect to repatriate 1,064 refugees to remote towns and villages in the Upper Nile, Jongley, South Kordofan and other states," the statement said.

The UN agency said the air repatriation supplements the ongoing road repatriation of Sudanese refugees from Ethiopia.

"The areas of return in Sudan for the Dinkas and other minority groups in our camps in western Ethiopia are extremely difficult to access by road, hence the resort to an airlift," it said.

The UN agency said it plans to resume airborne repatriation after the rainy season, in September-October, and bring 1,800 other refugees to Sudan by the end of the year.

More than 15,000 Sudanese refugees have returned from Ethiopia since the UNHCR-assisted return operation began in March 2006 -- including over 10,400 since Feb. 26, 2007.

Some 55,000 Sudanese refugees are still sheltered in four camps in Ethiopia. An estimated 300,000 Sudanese refugees remain in camps in neighboring countries.

The UN World Food Program (WFP) said Thursday it will gradually shift its operations in southern Sudan from emergency war relief to longer term recovery due to a reduced demand for food aid after more than 20 years of delivering food aid to the region.

The United Nations's largest food agency said the end of the civil war in south Sudan combined with better harvests enabled the agency to launch the new strategy.

WFP said the new strategy will see emergency food aid for the vast region cut by 19 percent this year while school feeding programs triple in size and food-for-work projects jump from 121, 000 participants last year to more than 160,000 in 2007.

Since the civil war ended in 2005 with the signing of the Comprehensive Peace Agreement, more than 1 million people displaced by the conflict have returned to their homes in southern Sudan.