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Sunday, 16 September, 2001, 05:34 GMT 06:34 UK
Fears of new Afghan exodus
Afghans
Afghans are streaming out of the capital, Kabul
Iran has closed its border with Afghanistan to stop Afghan refugees from entering the country to flee US retaliation for Tuesday's attacks on New York and Washington.

Military and police units have been deployed along the 560 mile (900km) border to prevent Afghans from crossing "in the aftermath of the probable US attacks," said an Interior Ministry statement.


If any regional or neighbouring country helps the United States attack us it would spark extraordinary dangers

Abdul Salam Zaeef, Taleban ambassador
US preparations were helped on Saturday when Pakistan said it would lend its full support to international efforts - but has not specified whether it would permit US use of its airspace or ground facilities for an attack on Afghanistan.

Tehran has condemned the attacks on the World Trade Center and Pentagon, but has refused to join an international coalition against terrorism being assembled by the United States.

Iran will "defend its territory whatever may happen" and will not accept any action aimed against it in case of US "reprisals", a high-ranking official has announced.

Pakistan, which shares a 2,510 km (1,560 mile) border with Afghanistan, has traditionally been the Taleban's strongest supporter and one of only three countries which recognise the regime.

Taleban defiant

Afghanistan's ruling Taleban militia has made clear that any countries offering such assistance must accept the possibility of reprisals and has called on the world's Muslims to stand up and defend the country.

Taleban soldiers
The Taleban cannot hope to match US firepower

Speaking to reporters in Pakistan, Taleban ambassador Abdul Salam Zaeef also warned that any attack by the US could trigger a wider regional war:

"If any regional or neighbouring country helps the United States attack us it would spark extraordinary dangers... It would draw us into a reprisal war," he said.

The possibility of US strikes grew after Washington confirmed that Islamic militant Osama Bin Laden, who is sheltered by the Taleban, is a prime suspect.

Osama Bin Laden
The Taleban is sheltering Osama Bin Laden, prime suspect in the US terror attacks

The Taleban has rallied behind Mr Bin Laden, saying he lacked the capacity to launch such devastating attacks.

But correspondents say scores of Afghans are now trying to leave the country fearful of an imminent and massive US attack.

Click here to see a map of Afghanistan

Reports from Pakistan say the number of people arriving from Afghanistan had risen considerably in the last two days, putting already crowded refugee camps under greater strain.

But Iran - already home to about 2 million Afghan refugees who have left their country after decades of civil war, famine drought - says it cannot accommodate any more.

"We will defend our territory and will not let any damage to be inflicted on our borders," said a senior Iranian official speaking through the official Islamic Republic News Agency.

Sacrifice for Islam

The Taleban leader, Mullah Omar has declared that all Muslims both at home and abroad should stand up and fight for the Islamic state.

Afghan refugees
Afghans are the world's biggest group of refugees
Reports from Afghanistan say Taleban leaders and their families are withdrawing to the area around the southern province of Kandahar, where they would be hard to find or attack.

Some reports say Taleban soldiers have been digging trenches as protection against US attacks, and installing anti-aircraft guns and missiles.

But the BBC's Rahimullah Yusufzai in Peshawar says they are hopelessly ill-equipped to defend themselves against the Americans.

After more than 20 years of war, the country is now suffering the worst drought in decades, and hundreds of thousands of people are living in refugee camps.

There is also a fear that, with the pull-out of international aid agencies in anticipation of an attack, Afghans will be left even more vulnerable.

The World Food Programme has warned that up to 1.5 million Afghans could flood out of the country in search of food.

"We'll be looking at thousands, hundreds of thousands, even millions of deaths if we don't take action now," Christian Aid spokesman Dominic Nunn told the BBC.

Afghans are the single biggest refugee group in the world with more than 2.6 million in exile, mainly in Pakistan and Iran.


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 WATCH/LISTEN
 ON THIS STORY
The BBC's Owen Bennett Jones
"People are not in any doubt here, that [attacks] will happen"
Marcel Van Suest of Medicins Sans Frontiers
"There is quite a lot of people trying to leave Afghanistan"
See also:

15 Sep 01 | South Asia
Pakistan 'will comply' on terror
11 Jan 01 | South Asia
Afghan refugees' unending plight
12 Sep 01 | South Asia
Bin Laden denies blame
14 Sep 01 | Americas
Bin Laden's command structure
12 Sep 01 | South Asia
Taleban tense as US seeks targets
11 Sep 01 | South Asia
Who is Osama Bin Laden?
14 Sep 01 | South Asia
Aid agencies warn of Afghan crisis
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