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KOBE ENDS ITS SERVICES FOR REFUGEES

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Seven months after a killer earthquake ravaged this city, Kobe's government said Sunday that it is closing all 260 of its remaining refugee centers and cutting off free food for residents made homeless by January's temblor.

About 7,600 people who still have not found housing were asked to vacate the centers, especially at schools, where they have been living since the Jan. 17 quake. They were told to move either into 12 newly specified "waiting stations," accept free temporary housing already offered by the city or find housing on their own.City officials took no forceful action to evict refugees and plan no such moves, said Jun Nagata, the duty officer of Kobe's earthquake countermeasure headquarters.

But the move underscored the problems that the Kobe and Hyogo prefecture governments face in carrying out a massive program to repair or replace more than $100 billion worth of property damaged in the 6.9-magnitude earthquake that killed more than 5,500 people.

"The 10 days to the end of the month will be our last chance to have talks to persuade people to move out of schools before classes resume after the summer holidays," Nagata said.

At the peak in late January, more than 310,000 people throughout Hyogo prefecture - 220,000 of them in Kobe - jammed schools, gymnasiums and other public buildings seeking shelter and food.

Sojiro Kawamura, who heads two grass-roots refugee groups, condemned the city government for creating "a new great disaster" in abandoning the many families who are expected to remain on school grounds despite Sunday's order.

Kawamura, whose family lost its apartment in the earthquake, acknowledged that some refugees have refused to accept free temporary housing units from the city. But he said that the rejections have come from families with five or six members who can't live in the tiny 30-square-yard prefabricated units, or from families who found commuting distances too long.

Nagata said the city would be able to provide new temporary shelters to about 2,000 people in 12 "waiting stations" in public halls, but said no additional temporary housing units will be built. Throughout the prefecture, about 48,000 prefab housing units have been built - 33,000 of them in Kobe - and distributed through a series of lottery drawings to families left homeless by the earthquake.

The 20 towns and cities devastated by the earthquake were reported to have spent about $1.7 billion to run the refugee centers, provide food and build the prefabricated housing units. The closing of Kobe's refugee centers leaves only Nishinomiya still providing such assistance, but that city plans to end its aid next Sunday.

Nagata said the city has asked people who cannot afford to pay for their own food to apply for welfare assistance. Kawamura said volunteers working with his groups plan to visit refugees Monday and distribute packages of instant noodle mix to those who need food.