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Afghan refugees torn over US strikes
Palash Kumar (AFP) New Delhi, September 19
-------------------------------------------------------------------------------- Thousands of Afghan refugees in India are torn over the prospect of US military strikes on Afghanistan, balancing their hatred of the Taliban regime with fears for the relatives they left behind. "We are very worried about our relatives who are still stuck in Afghanistan," said Sardar Manohar Singh, president of the Khalsa Diwan Welfare Society, a society of Afghan Sikhs who fled Kabul in 1979 when Soviet forces invaded.
More refugees, mostly Hindus and Sikhs, poured into India between 1992-1995 when the Islamic fundamentalist Taliban came to power in Kabul.
According to Singh, up to 7,000 Sikh and Hindus still live in Afghanistan.
"They are our relatives and friends who want to come to India. We are trying to get them here," Singh said.
Singh's association Wednesday made a representation to the foreign office in New Delhi, requesting visas for any Sikh or Hindu families seeking refuge in India.
The refugees' concern has not, however, prevented them supporting US strikes against the terrorist network of Osama bin Laden, the prime suspect in last week's terrorist attacks in New York and Washington who is believed to be in hiding in Afghanistan.
Taliban supreme leader Mullah Mohammad Omar clearly signalled Wednesday that his regime was ready to face a massive US military attack rather than hand over bin Laden.
"Of course we support strikes. The Taliban have continuously harassed us and we are not safe there. We would like a new government installed," Singh said.
On Tuesday, the Indian government issued new directives asking all Afghan refugees to register themselves at the home ministry.
"We welcome this step as this has been our long standing demand," he said. "This way we can officially be refugees and the state can then help us."
The decision was taken as part of the number of precautionary and preparatory steps by Prime Minister Atal Behari Vajpayee's government in preparation for expected US military action against Afghanistan.
According to the United Nations High Commission for Refugees (UNHCR) office in New Delhi, there are 11,684 registered Afghan refugees, nearly all of them living in the Indian capital.
"There could be many more, but they are not registered with us," said a UNHCR spokeswoman Nayana Bose. An unofficial estimate puts the total number of Afghan refugees in the country at more than 25,000.
Bose also welcomed the government decision asking the refugees to register themselves.
"In fact, we have been asking India to have a comprehensive law for refugees," she said. "So far, these refugees don't even get work permits and most of them are engaged in the informal sector."
Most Afghan families are employed in small-scale businesses in New Delhi, having received vocational training funded by the UNHCR.
The UN agency also provides medical aid and subsidised education.
-- Martin Thompson (email@example.com), September 19, 2001