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Head of UN Palestinian agency steps aside amid probe

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Jerusalem (AFP)

The head of the UN agency for Palestinian refugees has stepped aside temporarily as an internal probe into alleged mismanagement at the organisation proceeds, it said on Wednesday.

Pierre Krahenbuhl, commissioner general of the agency known as UNRWA, will be replaced on an interim basis by the agency's acting deputy chief Christian Saunders, it said.

The agency said findings in the probe so far "revealed management issues which relate specifically to the commissioner general."

"The commissioner-general has stepped aside until the completion of the process," it said.

An internal ethics report has alleged mismanagement and abuses of authority at the highest levels of the agency, which has also faced a financial crisis after US funding cuts.

UN investigators have been probing the allegations in the confidential report, a copy of which was obtained by AFP.

The report describes "credible and corroborated" allegations of serious ethical abuses, including involving Krahenbuhl, a Swiss national.

It says the allegations include senior management engaging in "sexual misconduct, nepotism, retaliation, discrimination and other abuses of authority, for personal gain, to suppress legitimate dissent, and to otherwise achieve their personal objectives."

Krahenbuhl himself was alleged to have been romantically involved with a colleague appointed in 2015 to a newly created role of senior adviser after an "extreme fast-track" process, the report says.

That enabled her to join him on international business class flights, the report alleges.

UNRWA came under heavy financial constraints after the United States suspended and later cut all funding for it in 2018.

US President Donald Trump's administration, along with Israel, accuses UNRWA of perpetuating the Israeli-Palestinian conflict.

The agency disputes that and says the services it provides would otherwise not be available to Palestinians.

A number of other countries suspended their contributions pending the outcome of the probe into alleged mismanagement.

UNRWA was set up in the years after more than 700,000 Palestinians were expelled or fled their lands during the 1948 war surrounding the creation of Israel.

It provides schooling and medical services to millions of impoverished refugees in Jordan. Lebanon and Syria as well as the Palestinian territories.

It employs around 30,000 people, mostly Palestinians, and its UN mandate is set to be debated later this year.

A European diplomat speaking on condition of anonymity said he was "grateful for all (Krahenbuhl) did to stabilise the organisation during a difficult time, but stepping aside now is the correct decision."

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