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.

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.

When Pakistan accepted its first wave of Afghan refugees, after the Soviet invasion in December 1979, few Pakistani leaders anticipated that the Afghans would stay.

But within a year or two, the refugees began trading tents for mud-brick homes, got jobs, established businesses, and started raising children who had never seen the home of their ancestors.

Even after Afghan guerrillas, known as mujahideen, forced the Soviet invaders to withdraw in 1989, the refugees kept coming, as rival guerrilla groups battled each other to take control of the country.

Since 1996, the Taliban militia, made up primarily of religious students trained in Pakistan, has ruled the bulk of the country, enforcing its interpretation of strict Islamic law. But battles continue with the Northern Alliance, an anti-Taliban coalition based in northeast Afghanistan. Two days before the attacks on the US, suicide bombers mortally injured the alliance's military commander, Ahmad Shah Masood.

This past winter, the swell of Afghan migrants reached such a high point, due to a three-year drought and continued fighting, that Pakistan sealed off its borders and refused to allow the UN to register any more refugees - a tactic that Pakistan continues today.

"Earlier this year we received 200,000 refugees ... and we requested the UN to provide relief within Afghanistan so that they don't have any need to move to Pakistan," said Mohammad Riaz Khan, spokesman for the Pakistan Foreign Office, at a press conference in Islamabad. "This is not a new problem we are facing. We are already in touch with the UN to mobilize what resources they have to provide relief supplies."

But with the UN and other relief agencies pulled out of Afghanistan, UN officials estimate that current stocks of food aid - which feed some 6 million people within Afghanistan - could run out in two weeks. Many of those dependent on such food are refugees within their own country, displaced by drought and ongoing fighting. And relief agencies warn that, with winter just weeks away, some Afghans are already turning to grass and animal fodder for sustenance.

Abdul Basir, and his sister, Shaferai, who this reporter observed just over a week ago, are among the internally displaced. They occupy a bombed-out brick home in the destroyed western section of Kabul. Their family of 10 was forced to leave a village near the Northern Alliance-controlled Panjshir Valley. "We left because there was fighting in our district a few months ago," says Mr. Basir. "We lost everything. Now we live here."

In the refugee camps inside Pakistan, many Afghans say their relatives are all looking for ways to safety, even if it means sneaking into Pakistan illegally.

"Most of the people there are trying to come, but they don't have opportunities," says Karimullah, who arrived in the Nasir Bagh camp near Peshawar one month ago. "My grandfather and my uncle are still there. I'm worried about them."

One grizzled Afghan at Nasir Bagh says the Pakistani mood has definitely changed. "It used to be that you could give some money at the border, and you could get through, but not anymore," he says.

But Afghans are used to war, he adds. "All we are waiting for now is the raw materials - when the American missiles fall, we'll sell it for scrap metal. Otherwise, it won't mean anything to us."

Material from the wire services was used for this report.

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