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ISLAMABAD - U.N. Secretary-General António Guterres on Sunday began a three-day visit to Pakistan by urging the international community to support countries that continue to host millions of refugees from war-shattered Afghanistan.
The U.N. chief also called for India and Pakistan to defuse tensions over Kashmir and emphasized "the absolute need" for Indian authorities to "fully" respect human rights in the disputed majority Muslim region.
Guterres is in Islamabad for meetings with Pakistani leaders and to deliver a keynote address to an international conference Monday marking Pakistan's four decades of support for Afghan refugees.
Addressing a news conference in the Pakistani capital, Guterres said despite its own challenges and limited support from the international community, Pakistan has sheltered Afghan refugees for 40 years, making it the world's second largest host of the refugees."
One can only imagine how much worse the plight of Afghans would be, and how unstable the region might be without Pakistan's stellar example of hospitality and compassion," Guterres noted.
He reaffirmed the world body's continued support for Pakistan and called on other developed nations to support the country "and indeed show similar leadership in sharing this responsibility in this region and around the world."
The U.N. estimates that some 4.6 million Afghans, including 2.7 million registered refugees, still live outside of Afghanistan. Around 90 per cent of them are being hosted by Pakistan (1.4 million) and Iran (1 million).
Pakistani officials say another around 1.3 million Afghan economic immigrants live in the country, without officially being recognized as refugees.
Afghan peace talks
Guterres hailed a United States-led Afghan peace process aimed at finding a political settlement with Taliban insurgents to the 18-year-old war in neighboring Afghanistan.
"I am following closely the important efforts to bring peace to the country... It is my hope that the discussions will be productive and lead to a reduction in violence, especially violence that harms civilians," he said.
The reduced violence, Guterres said, is critical to build confidence and support for a peace process that leads to a lasting political settlement and the permanent Afghan ceasefire.
"Such conditions would contribute to enabling the peaceful return of displaced persons and refugees to their homes. I want to reaffirm that " he added.
The U.N. chief praised Pakistan for playing a "crucial role" in facilitating the Afghan peace process and in realizing what he called a "potentially historic opportunity" for peace in the war-shattered country.
U.S. and Taliban negotiators last week agreed to reduce fighting for a period of seven days in order to pave the way for a comprehensive Afghan peace agreement to end hostilities.
U.S. officials say no date has been set for when the the temporary truce will take effect. Taliban officials claim the so-called reduction in violence agreement will come into force from February 22 and the broader peace deal will be singed on February 29.
Pakistan is credited with arranging the nearly 18-months long U.S.-Taliban negotiations, using influence and connections with insurgent leaders whose families live in the country in areas hosting Afghan refugees.
Guterres also spoke about Pakistan's ongoing renewed military stand off with rival India over the decades-old disputed Kashmir region, saying he was "deeply concerned" about the increase in tensions.
"I have repeatedly stressed the importance of maximum restraint and taking steps to de-escalate both militarily and verbally while reiterating my offer to exercise my good offices should both sides ask," the secretary-general said.
Bilateral tensions have escalated since last August, when New Delhi unilaterally revoked a decades-old constitutional special autonomous status for the Indian-controlled portion of Kashmir. India defends the move, saying it will help stamp out terrorism and spur development in the country's most restive region.
Pakistan, which also controls a portion of the divided Himalayan territory, rejects the move, saying Kashmir is an internationally recognized disputed territory under U.N. Security Council resolutions and neither side can unilaterally alter the status.
Indian authorities have since placed millions of residents of the country's only Muslim-majority region under tight security clampdown and imposed a communications blackout to counter violent reactions to the moves, although the restrictions have been partially eased in recent weeks."
Diplomacy and dialogue remain the only tools that guarantee peace and stability, with solutions in accordance with the charge of United Nations and the resolutions of the security council," Guterres said.
"When we see situations of discontent and unrest, it is of utmost importance to ensure full respect for human rights and fundamental freedoms," the U.N. chief said, mirroring Pakistani demands for India to remove the restrictions and restore Kashmir's status.
The Kashmir dispute has triggered two of the three wars between India and Pakistan and it continues to threaten regional security.
Officials said Monday's ministerial conference, convened jointly with the U.N. High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR) will highlight the "generosity, hospitality and compassion" of Pakistan, Iran and other countries in hosting the refugee population impacted by more than four decades of unrest in Afghanistan.
The UNHCR says funding levels have dropped for its already under-resourced operations in Afghanistan, Pakistan and Iran over the years - making it hard to invest in Afghan lives and continue support to affected local host communities.