Border closes to Afghan refugees

Pakistan virtually shut down its border with Afghanistan yesterday and called in police reinforcements to confine Afghan refugees to dozens of camps within its borders.

About two dozen supply trucks were stopped at Torkham, a border town in northern Pakistan, unable to cross. On the Afghan side, thousands of refugees fleeing hunger, drought, and the possibility of a US military strike also tried to cross, but were turned away.

Both Afghanistan and Pakistan have amassed troops and weaponry along their 1,560-mile border in anticipation of a possible assault by a US-led international coalition, officials say.

Nothing was allowed to enter Afghanistan yesterday, except for a few trucks carrying food and people with valid travel documents, says Farooq Shah, border official at Torkham.

The closure of the border was one of several requests made of Pakistan by the United States. Other requests include the use of Pakistan's airspace and soil, and an exchange of intelligence material - all in preparation for a possible retaliatory strike against Afghanistan after last week's deadly terrorist attacks on the US.

Afghanistan's ruling Taliban militia has harbored Osama bin Laden, the leading suspect in the attacks, since 1996, and for that Afghanistan is considered a likely target of a retaliatory assault.

The provincial government of Pakistan's Northwest Frontier Province on Sunday ordered refugees, who usually move freely, to stay within their camp limits.

Officials called it a precautionary measure in the event of a military strike. Yesterday, they began assembling additional police forces to implement the order that was intended to ensure "that the terrorists and subversive elements are strictly checked," according to government officials.

Pakistan worries that those loyal to the Taliban among the refugees might turn violent if the US uses Pakistani airspace or soil to attack Afghanistan.

The new orders were met with anger and dismay in the camps.

"If we don't go outside the camps, how will we feed our children?" asks Aziz, who, like many Afghans, uses only one name. "We are people and we are not creating any problems for Pakistan."

Abdullah Jan, a refugee from the Afghan capital Kabul and a father of six, says Pakistan has nothing to fear from the Afghan refugees. "We have nothing to do with terrorism or terrorists. We are ourselves victims of terrorism," he says.

He sympathizes "with the pain of the families" who lost loved ones in the US attacks, but says the United States should "not do anything that would increase the suffering of innocent Afghans."

Mr. Jan and others say they are concerned about the departure of personnel of the United Nations refugee agency from the camps in northern Pakistan. That staff, which normally screens refugees and provides humanitarian relief, evacuated the camps after the terror attacks and has not returned.

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