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Refugee crisis worsens; Afghans clamor at closed border

By Seattle Times news services

CHAMAN, Pakistan More than 1,000 Afghan refugees, fearing an imminent U.S. attack, pounded on a giant steel border gate separating them from Pakistan yesterday, but were turned away.

At one point, Pakistani border guards beat them back with sticks as they tried to surge through the 10-foot-tall gate when it opened to let an ambulance pass through.

The refugee crisis on Pakistan's southwestern frontier with Afghanistan worsened after Pakistan virtually shut down the border Monday at the United States' request. Pakistan already is host to 2 million Afghan refugees, most of them living in squalid camps. Inside Afghanistan, a severe food shortage looms as winter approaches.

By the end of the day, the ambulance was all that had moved through the gate and a wall of barbed wire behind it on the Pakistan side of the border.

"We've got our orders, and nothing else will get through," said Sher Ali, a paramilitary soldier at the border in Pakistan's southwestern Baluchistan province.

The refugees, many shouting and some crying, pleaded to be allowed across.

Many had fled their homes in Kandahar, headquarters of Afghanistan's Taliban rulers, about 42 miles from Chaman.

"Everyone is very afraid in Kandahar. Most of the shops have closed," said Mohammed Habibullah, a Pakistani construction worker who recently returned home from the city.

Kandahar is one of the locations that U.S. forces are expected to target if the Taliban government refuses to extradite Osama bin Laden, who is accused of masterminding the Sept. 11 suicide attacks.

Thousands more Afghan refugees have been gathering on islands along a river that marks much of Afghanistan's border with Tajikistan, Russian border officials said.

U.N. officials in Islamabad warned winter is expected to arrive in the Central Asian region as early as November, and millions of people will face food shortages in Afghanistan.

Khaled Mansour, regional spokesman for the World Food Program, said pre-famine conditions existed in Afghanistan, where 85 percent of the population live in villages and food distribution is seriously hampered by the latest crisis.

"By pre-famine conditions we don't mean we have walking

skeletons ... but we have people who are eating grass, people are eating animal fodder, we have people who have sold everything they had, this is what we mean by pre-famine conditions," Mansour said.

U.N. officials said 15,000 Afghan refugees entered Pakistan at Chaman in the week before the border outpost was closed and the United Nations has received reports of large movements of people within Afghanistan.

Exact figures aren't available because all foreign staffers with the United Nations and 150 non-governmental aid organizations were withdrawn from the country last week following the terrorist attacks.

The U.N. World Food Program said it has stockpiles of food for refugees in Afghanistan that will last another three weeks. An estimated 5 million to 6 million Afghans in the country are unable to feed themselves.

-- Martin Thompson (, September 20, 2001

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