Thousands fleeing Afghanistan; U.N. warns that food supplies running out
CHAMAN, Pakistan (AP) – Starving and terrified, hundreds of Afghans pushed their way past Pakistani border police Tuesday, ignoring the warning shots fired over their heads.
Some jumped over the iron bars at the border; others slid underneath them. Many lobbed stones at border police trying to keep them from crossing into southwestern Pakistan, a security official said.
One man who made it to the border near Quetta with his family broke down in tears when police asked for his papers. ”We were kept here without food or water,” said Abdul Samad, nursing a hand bleeding from a scuffle with police.
He and his family are among the thousands who have fled their homes amid fears of retaliatory strikes on Afghanistan, home to the man suspected of masterminding last week’s terror attacks on the United States.
Police managed to disperse a crowd of Afghans at the border near Quetta with gunfire, but some 400 refugees managed to force their way in and were taken by truck to camps outside the southwestern Pakistani city, the security official said on condition of anonymity.
The refugees appeared terrified and hungry. Children cried, and women screamed at border guards.
”We are worried that hundreds of thousands of Afghans have left the cities and are headed for Pakistan,” Riaz Mohammed Khan, a spokesman for Pakistan’s Foreign Office, told reporters Tuesday. ”According to our information, large numbers are already gathered on our borders.”
Thousands more have been gathering on islands along a river that marks much of Afghanistan’s border with Tajikistan, Russian border officials said Tuesday.
Both Pakistan and Tajikistan said they were unable to handle the influx.
Pakistan, already host to 2 million Afghan refugees – most of them living in squalid camps – virtually shut down its border with Afghanistan one day earlier. Nearly all trade has halted along the 1,500-mile-long border frontier as both Pakistan and Afghanistan step up their military presence with troops and weaponry.
Washington has threatened punishment for those harboring suspected terrorist Osama bin Laden, who has been living since 1996 in Afghanistan as a guest of the ruling fundamentalist Islamic Taliban.
President Gen. Pervez Musharraf has agreed to ”full cooperation” with Washington, which called on Pakistan to close its border with Afghanistan, make its airspace and land available to a U.S.-led force and exchange intelligence material.
Only those with valid travel papers and a trickle of trucks loaded with staple foods were allowed to pass through the border, Khan said.
In Moscow, Russian Federal Border Guard spokesman Sergei Ivanchenko said Tuesday that thousands of Afghans have been gathering on islands along the Pyandzh River that marks much of Afghanistan’s border with Tajikistan.
Ivanchenko said 12,000 refugees were on the islands earlier this month, with another 120,000 Afghans in other areas butting up against the Tajik border. That number will soar with airstrikes, he said, and Tajikistan is not prepared to accommodate them.
U.N. officials warned that relief food supplies to feed Afghanistan’s people, already starving after 20 years of war and three years of drought, will not last much longer without international help.
Foreign staffers of 150 non-governmental organizations left Afghanistan last week following the attacks on the World Trade Center and the Pentagon.
”In two or three weeks, there won’t be any more food aid inside Afghanistan, and it isn’t self-sufficient at all,” Christiane Berthiaume, spokeswoman for the World Food Program, said Tuesday in Geneva.
At least 5 million Afghans need help, and the World Food Program is currently feeding 3.8 million of them, she said.
”They are already hungry and we are already seeing a sign of pre-famine with reports of people being paralyzed because they had eaten poisonous plants,” she said.
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