Afghans flee as US rejects Taliban offer
As refugees head for Pakistan, Taliban supporters there call a national strike today.
Until three days ago, Abdul Ghafar was a vegetable merchant in the central market of Jalalabad, Afghanistan. But since Osama bin Laden is known to spend weeks at a time there, he, his friend, and their family members - 18 in all - decided to run.Skip to next paragraph
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So many thousands of terrified refugees raced toward the Pakistani border yesterday that security guards hurriedly strung rolls of barbed wire across the border to keep them out.
During the past week, some 100,000 Afghans have tried to flee Afghanistan - most headed toward Pakistan. The biggest surge in refugees came yesterday, after the Bush administration flatly rejected a proposal by a council of Islamic clerics to allow Mr. bin Laden - America's prime suspect in last week's attacks - to leave Afghanistan on his own.
"It is time for action, not words," said Ari Fleischer, President Bush's spokesman.
With its response, the Taliban appears to be doing two things: playing for time before what looks like an imminent US strike, and embarking on a campaign to blunt international support for US military action, if possible.
"This is a PR effort to try to show the world they can be reasonable and that the world shouldn't stand aside if the US wants to unleash the wrath of God on them," says Robert Turner, associate director of the Center for International Security Law at the University of Virginia. "It's a reasonably clever response" that may gain some sympathy from Islamic countries, he says.
"The key country in their effort is Pakistan," adds Andrew Kuchins of the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace.
But that is unlikely to work, experts say, and the refugees continue to flee toward the mountainous 1,500 mile border.
"Everyone is planning to leave the city," says Mr. Ghafar, sitting in a shop outside of Jalozai refugee camp. His friend, Mr. Zaman, nods slowly, fingering his glass prayer beads. "Some will go to their ancestral villages. Some will go to Pakistan. And some will just go to the mountain areas."
Zaman adds, "It's impossible for American missiles to hit only Osama bin Laden. It will be a blind stone coming from the sky, and it doesn't know if it kills my child, or a lady, or a soldier, or Osama."
For more than 23 years, Pakistan has played patient host to Afghan refugees, with 2.5 million currently living in refugee camps here.
Pakistan and foreign relief agencies are now bracing for yet another wave, as the United States prepares a massive antiterrorist campaign against Saudi-born militant bin Laden, whom US officials consider the prime suspect in last week's terrorist attacks on New York and Washington.
President Gen. Pervez Musharraf has offered "full support" for potential US military action against bin Laden, or the Afghan Taliban regime that has given him refuge. It's a position that is drawing increasing criticism at home.
Pakistan's Islamic Party has called a national strike today to protest the threat of US attacks on Afghanistan. The head of the party, Qazi Hussain Ahmed, called yesterday's decision by the Taliban council of clerics a "ray of hope."
Meanwhile, there are concerns the influx of tens of thousands of new refugees from Afghanistan could further fuel anti-US sentiments.