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Afghan civilians fleeing large cities, UN refugee agency reports

Afghan civilians fleeing large cities, UN refugee agency reports

The United High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR) today reported that civilians in Afghanistan were fleeing the country's large cities, with some of the displaced headed to small villages and others aiming to cross borders with Iran and Pakistan.

In an update issued in Geneva, UNHCR said that large numbers of people were leaving the Afghan city of Kandahar, the major city in the south and the headquarters of the Taliban. Civilians are also reportedly fleeing Kabul and Jalalabad. While many of those leaving are said to be going to villages, "many others are headed for the Pakistan border, and possibly some for the Iranian border."

Despite the fact that all borders with Afghanistan's neighbours are closed, some Afghans reportedly have managed to cross into Pakistan, UNHCR said. Iran has stated "categorically" that its border will remain closed, but Tehran has said it will assist in any cross-border aid operations that may be necessary.

The humanitarian situation inside Afghanistan is described as critical, with the agency warning that the departure of international relief workers from the country will likely spell worsening conditions for millions of civilians who are "barely managing to survive."

"The situation inside Afghanistan after three years of drought and more than 20 years of continually evolving conflict, as well as large-scale human rights abuses, is extremely fragile," UNHCR warned, saying it was "extremely worried" about the possibility of mass displacements and widespread deaths.

"Already many people are reported to be too weak even to become displaced," UNHCR said. "They simply don't have the strength or the resources to move from their villages."

In response, the agency is sending extra emergency staff to the region while drawing up contingency plans for numerous different scenarios. In addition, a crisis group has been formed involving the main UN agencies that will be working together in the event of a major emergency.

Meanwhile, High Commissioner Ruud Lubbers was at UN Headquarters in New York today to raise awareness about the plight of the Afghan people. Speaking to reporters after conferring with Secretary-General Kofi Annan, Mr. Lubbers said he would head tomorrow to Washington, D.C. "The policy-makers there I hope will be more aware of the humanitarian dimensions" of the situation in Afghanistan, he said.

"The war against terrorism is a globally accepted principle, so I think there is no divide" between the aims of UNHCR and those engaged in the struggle, he said, responding to questions. He added that humanitarian consequences should still be taken into account in any planned actions.