Pakistan braces for refugees

With small but boisterous protests around the country, Pakistan again reaffirmed its promise of support yesterday for the expected US military assault against Afghanistan's ruling Taliban.

Pakistan has closed its borders with Afghanistan, allowing only food trucks and Afghans with valid Pakistani visas to cross. Meanwhile, a Pakistani delegation to Taliban leaders, led by Pakistan spy-agency chief Lt. Gen. Mahmoud Ahmed, was expected home late last night.

"The purpose of the visit was not negotiation, but to impress on the Afghan leadership the gravity of the situation," said Foreign Office spokesman Muhammad Riaz Khan, who refused to divulge any specific details.

"There is no question of punishing people," he added, when asked about the possible human toll of a US-led military attack on Afghanistan. "The question is tracking down and punishing the perpetrators of the terrible crime which took place in New York and Washington."

Pakistan is bracing for hundreds of thousands refugees from Afghanistan expected to spill across the porous 1,500-mile border. UN representatives say current stocks of food within Afghanistan will run out in the next two weeks unless replenished. All UN staff with foreign passports have been pulled out of Afghanistan.

"We're going to have movement of internally displaced people, up to 200,000 around Herat alone, heading to the Iranian border," says Yusuf Hassan, a UN spokesman in Islamabad. "People in Kandahar and Kabul will be coming here." Pakistan's refugee camps are already packed with 2.5 million Afghans.

"It is quite understandable that people in search of food in Afghanistan would come to Pakistan," said Mr. Khan, the foreign office spokesman. "But we have tried to close the border and requested the UN to provide relief within Afghanistan so they don't have any need to move to Pakistan."

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