Afghans fear attack as aid staff pull out

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As Afghanistan braced itself for possible retaliation by the United States, the United Nations ordered its 80 non-Afghan staff out of the country.

The UN laid on several flights yesterday to bring its employees to Islamabad in neighbouring Pakistan, calling the transfer a "temporary pullout."

The UN is involved in feeding hungry and impoverished Afghans and running other humanitarian projects to relieve the suffering of a population pulverised by more than 20 years of unceasing civil war.

Other international agencies took similar precautions, with 12 of the International Red Cross's 70 foreign workers leaving and dozens of other aid workers reportedly moving across the border to safety.

Besides the danger of becoming collateral victims of a possible American air strike, the foreigners working in Afghanistan now face another peril: the risk, in the event of an American attack, of being lynched by infuriated Afghans. In 1998, following the firing in to eastern Afghanistan of a volley of Tomahawk cruise missiles by the US in retaliation for the bombing of two American embassies in Africa by Osama bin Laden's lieutenants, an Italian employee of the UN was killed by an angry mob in Kabul.

Osama bin Laden, who is emerging as the prime suspect for Tuesday's attacks, is being sheltered in Afghanistan by the Taliban, whose rulers still harbour the Saudi dissident in defiance of calls by the West to give him up to Western justice.

The Taliban ambassador to Pakistan, Mullah Abdul Salam Zaeef, continued to insist yesterday that any extradition of Mr bin Laden was "premature" but that the regime would study "any evidence".

Never a comfortable posting for foreigners since the Taliban took over, Kabul has become a city of multiple hazards.

On Tuesday night, some 12 hours after the suicide attacks blamed on Mr bin Laden, bombs and shells rained down on Kabul, initially thought to be instant retaliation by the US.

Instead, it turned out to be an air raid on the capital by the Northern Alliance of Ahmed Shah Masood, the guerrilla leader based near the Tajikistan border in the north-east whose forces remain the only opponent of the Taliban – resisting their takeover of the whole country. Masood himself was injured in an assassination attempt on Sunday, and it is still unclear whether he is alive.

As speculation mounted of a possible US strike, a spokesman for the Taliban, Abdul Hai Mutmaen, said yesterday: "If innocent and sinless people suffer, then it is certain that, on the level of the region, hatred will further increase, the result of which will be similar to the suicide incidents."

But, while most foreigners in Kabul are leaving Afghanistan, the eight foreign aid workers on trial in the capital for allegedly preaching the "banned religion" of Christianity remained in custody pending the resumption of the trial.

The foreign workers from an organization called Shelter Now International, four Germans, two Australians and two Americans – six of the eight are women – have been held for more than a month. On Tuesday, they informed the Taliban's judges of their choice of lawyers. He was expected to arrive in Kabul within days, but the altered situation may delay that. Two of the relatives of the accused left the country yesterday but at least two of the diplomats on hand to advise them remained . Meanwhile, in another part of Afghanistan, the only name on the list of suspects behind Tuesday's atrocities, Mr bin Laden, "got down on his knees and thanked Almighty Allah" when he heard the news of Tuesday's attacks, according to an unnamed aide. Both Mr bin Laden and the aide were at a secret location.

But Mr bin Laden had no prior knowledge of the attacks, according to the aide, speaking to a journalist from Abu Dhabi TV. "He had no information or knowledge about the attacks ahead of time," the aide said.

A Pakistan newspaper, Khabrai, yesterday endorsed this account, quoting sources close to the Taliban relaying the view of Mr bin Laden that "The terrorist act is the action of some American group. I have nothing to do with it."

Mr bin Laden made similar denials after the attacks on the embassies in Kenya and Tanzania, and the bombing of a US destroyer last year in Yemen. Both attacks were subsequently laid at his door.

If the Bush administration concurs with the almost uniform view of terrorist experts that Mr bin Laden is the only man with the resources, the network and the diabolical ambition to bring about such highly co-ordinated devastation, Afghanistan can expect to suffer further retribution on his behalf.