Pakistan to turn back victims of the Taliban

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Pakistan is serving notice it is no longer either willing or able to accept a continuing flood of refugees from Afghanistan ­ despite what may prove, in the words of its Foreign Minister, "one of the greatest humanitarian disasters in history".

Such a development would only add to the chaos and confusion gripping Afghanistan, destroyed by two decades of foreign occupation and civil war and now regarded as a centre of the drugs trade and a spawning ground for international terrorism. But speaking in London yesterday, Abdul Sattar, Islamabad's Foreign Minister, was adamant.

Since the 1979 Soviet invasion of Afghanistan, he said, Pakistan had taken in 2.5 million Afghan refugees, mainly into its North West Frontier province. "We are suffering from refugee fatigue; our sacrifice and patience is at an end. There is no more space, and our people are not prepared to give up any more land."

He denied that Pakistan might then be in breach of United Nations conditions. Pakistan would continue to give shelter to Afghans seeking political asylum from the Taliban, "but we have no obligation to accept economic refugees".

His words came a day after Mr Sattar had faced renewed pressure from Jack Straw, the new Foreign Secretary, over its perceived support of the radical Islam Taliban regime in Kabul. They also coincide with reports that Taliban troops have captured and destroyed the opposition-controlled town of Yakowlang 100 miles west of the capital, possibly making a further 60,000 people homeless.

The Foreign Minister denied that Pakistan, one of only three countries to recognise the Taliban, was propping up the Kabul regime. Why should it, he argued, pointing to the price Pakistan has paid for the anarchy next door: loss of land access both to the west and the countries of central Asia, problems with Iran, and an end to hopes of a north south pipeline for central Asian oil and gas, which would have brought important revenues to Pakistan.

But as analysts noted, the disclaimer does not rule out meddling by Pakistan's powerful military intelligence agency ISI, which critics accuse of being a virtual state within the state.

Mr Sattar's depiction of contemporary Afghanistan was little short of apocalyptic ­ a country ravaged by two decades of war and now the worst drought in 30 years. Four million of its people had fled abroad, with as many of those who remained facing starvation.

Three-quarters of its agriculture had been destroyed, as had most of the centuries-old system of underground irrigation channels or "karezes", essential to grow crops in so arid a climate. Afghanistan's total 2001 national budget was just $82m (£60m), equal to £3 per head of the population.

Mr Sattar predicted that despite its latest success the Taliban, which controls some 90 per cent of the country, would never be allowed by its foes in Iran and Russia to complete the defeat of the opposition United Front. "But even if the regime established 100 per cent control, the situation would be the same, the economic disaster would not change."