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Monday, 17 September, 2001, 15:56 GMT 16:56 UK
UN prepares for major Afghan crisis
Afghan refugees face closed borders
The United Nations refugee agency, UNHCR, is sending emergency staff to Pakistan and Iran in preparation for what it warns could become a major Afghan refugee crisis.

The move comes as tens of thousands of Afghan people flee their homes amid fears that the US will launch attacks on Afghanistan.

It's going to take very little to push that existing humanitarian crisis into really a major disaster in huge numbers on the road

UNHCR spokesman Rupert Colville

It's going to take very little to push that existing humanitarian crisis into really a major disaster in huge numbers on the road. It also follows the escape by hundreds of thousands of Afghans to Pakistan over the past year because of conflict.

The agency says the southern Afghan city of Kandahar, home to the Taleban's headquarters and about 100,000 people, is now half empty as Afghans seek refuge in the countryside or attempt to cross into neighbouring Pakistan or Iran.

A boy bathes in a refugee camp in Jalozai, Pakistan
Existing Afghan refugees live in squalid conditions
The borders to both countries have been closed and more than 1,000 Afghans are reported to be stuck on the Afghan side of the Pakistan border crossing point.

BBC correspondent Adam Mynott, reporting from Torkham, one of the main crossing points into Pakistan at the head of the Khyber Pass in the North-West Frontier Province, said the situation was extremely tense.

Large numbers of Afghans have also fled the capital city Kabul, as well as Jalalabad in the East, although the UNHCR said the situation at Herat in the west and Mazar-i-Sharif in the north appeared to be relatively calm.

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Afghanistan’s neighbours: Regional fears

Hundreds of Afghans crossed into Pakistan before it closed its borders and many hundreds more are said to be waiting on the Afghan border.

In Geneva the UNHCR spokesman Kris Janowski estimated the number of people on the move throughout Afghanistan to be in the "tens of thousands."

Aside from a handful of local staff, there are no international aid agencies to help the displaced as they have all now been evacuated from Afghanistan.

"So it's going to take very little to push that existing humanitarian crisis into really a major disaster in huge numbers on the road."

The UNHCR has warned that if it cannot continue its work inside Afghanistan up to 1.5 million people could also be forced to leave their homes to avoid starvation due to the continuing drought

UNHCR spokesman Rupert Colville told the BBC: "It's going to take very little to push that existing humanitarian crisis into really a major disaster in huge numbers on the road."

The International Committee of the Red Cross (ICRC) said it was evaluating whether it would be possible for its international staff to enter Afghanistan on short visits to back up about 1,000 local Afghan employees still in the country.

Afghan refugees
Afghans are already the world's biggest group of refugees
Thousands of Afghans have already poured into Iran, an Afghan opposition leader told the French news agency AFP.

Abdolkarim Ayubi, from the opposition fighting the ruling Taleban militia, said that between 3,000 and 4,000 Afghans had entered Iran illegally on Saturday and Sunday although the figures could not be independently verified.

The BBC's correspondent in Geneva, Emma-Jane Kirby, says that although Iran has now closed its border, it has assured the UNCHR that it will assist any cross border operations that may become necessary.

Moreover, the UNHCR's Kris Janowski noted that it would be hard for either Pakistan or Iran to maintain surveillance over the whole length of their mountainous frontiers with Afghanistan.

The BBC's Adam Mynott
"The Afghan government is under the most intense international pressure"
UNHCR spokesman Rupert Colville
"There is already a huge refugee population in Pakistan"
See also:

11 Jan 01 | South Asia
Afghan refugees' unending plight
17 Sep 01 | South Asia
Pakistan views possible US retaliation
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Aid agencies warn of Afghan crisis
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Taleban tense as US seeks targets
14 Sep 01 | Americas
Bin Laden's command structure
16 Sep 01 | Middle East
Bin Laden divides Arab opinion
16 Sep 01 | Middle East
Iran weighs up its options
15 Sep 01 | South Asia
Pakistan 'will comply' on terror
11 Sep 01 | South Asia
Who is Osama Bin Laden?
17 Sep 01 | Americas
More arrests in US terror probe
14 Sep 01 | South Asia
Who is Osama Bin Laden?
16 Sep 01 | South Asia
In pictures: Afghans fear US backlash
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