Aid groups pull workers out of Afghanistan

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The Independent Online
AID ORGANISATIONS began evacuating their workers from Afghanistan yesterday after a warning by the United Nations of a "serious threat to non-Muslims" in the country.

Workers from international aid organisations, including Medecins Sans Frontieres, flew out of Kandahar and a number of other expatriate staff were planning to leave today. The UN has told its staff to stay in the organisation's main sites in Afghanistan and limit their movement as much as possible if they cannot leave the country. The British High Commission yesterday warned all British nationals to leave as soon as possible.

There have been reports that Islamic fundamentalists associated with the double bombings in East Africa earlier this month have fled to Afghanistan. The country is already home to Osama bin Laden, the Saudi millionaire who has vowed to attack American interests around the world as part of his campaign to drive the US out of Saudi Arabia. Earlier this week the Americans evacuated non-essential diplomatic staff from neighbouring Pakistan for security reasons.

The warning to aid workers comes as relations between the Taliban Islamic militia - which in recent weeks has extended its control to 90 per cent of Afghanistan - and neighbouring states have deteriorated sharply. Tensions with Iran in particular have risen in the past few days. Iran claims that the Taliban is holding 11 diplomats who were in Mazar-e-Sharif, the key northern town that fell to the Islamic army nearly two weeks ago, in prison in Kandahar.

The Taliban says that it is holding 30 Iranians who were captured while supplying weapons to an opposition faction in the north but denies knowledge of any diplomats.

Iran, a predominantly Shia Muslim country, has been supporting Shia fighters in Afghanistan against the largely Sunni Taliban.

The Taliban minister for interior affairs, Mullah Khirullah, in command at Mazar-e-Sharif, said that Iranian religious leaders had branded the Taliban "illegal gangsters" and said that the Islamic militia was not afraid of Iran. "Everyone knows about Afghanistan and the Afghans. We taught the British and the Soviets a lesson and if anyone else makes their mistakes there will be the same result," he said.

Shias in Taliban-held areas are, according to reports, being harassed. There are also reports that Afghans in Iran are being detained in camps and that hundreds of Sunnis are fleeing over the Iranian border.