Three officials from the UN High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR) will assess security in the volatile region for its staff, including 24 international employees who are being temporarily relocated, it said on Tuesday.

"We have decided to suspend our repatriation of Sudanese refugees from the Central African Republic, Uganda and the Democratic Republic of Congo to Yei, Yambio, and Kajo Keji areas of south Sudan starting today (Tuesday) and to Tambura from Wednesday," spokeswoman Jennifer Pagonis told a briefing.

"Our international staff in these locations have been moved out to other areas in southern Sudan for two weeks while we undergo a review of the situation there," she said.

Attack on UNHCR

The decision was taken after heavy fighting in Yambio on Saturday evening near the compound of an aid agency and follows last week's deadly attack on a UNHCR compound in Yei.

The Sudan People's Liberation Army intervened in Yambio and scattered the unidentified armed groups after hours of shooting, it said.

A local UNHCR guard was killed in the Yei attack by unidentified armed men. Another guard was wounded, and an Iraqi working for the UNHCR was left in critical but stable condition.

Plans for return

The UNHCR has been preparing for the return of hundreds of thousands of Sudanese refugees from surrounding countries after a peace deal between the government and southern rebels in January 2005 ended two decades of war.

A final group of 167 Sudanese would leave Mboki camp in Central African Republic on Tuesday for Tambura, according to UNHCR spokeswoman Helene Caux. "It was already planned, and people had sold their belongings," she said.

Its voluntary repatriation programme from Democratic Republic of Congo was to have begun on Monday, but was on hold after last week's shooting.

Repatriations from Uganda were due to begin soon, while returns from Central African Republic began in February.

Another repatriation programme for those in Ethiopia, to begin next week, are not affected by the suspension.