UN appeals for $250m for Afghan refugee crisis

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The UN refugee agency today appealed for $252 million to care for Afghans in the face of any US retaliatory strikes against the hide–out of Osama bin Laden.

"Today we are witnessing an unprecedented global effort to combat terrorism," said UN High Commissioner for Refugees Ruud Lubbers. "We need a similar unique effort to deal with possible humanitarian consequences of whatever happens in Afghanistan.

UNHCR officials fear than any action in Afghanistan could send up to 1.5 million people fleeing toward neighbouring countries, Mr Lubbers told a meeting in Geneva.

It could be the largest flight of refugees since Serbian forces drove hundreds of thousands of ethnic Albanians from their homes in Kosovo during NATO's 1999 air war against Yugoslavia, the agency said.

UNHCR planners expect that at worst up to one million Afghans will cross the border into Pakistan, 400,000 into Iran and 50,000 each into Tajikistan and Turkmenistan.

The agency needs the money over the next six months to be able to build refugee camps, including 80,000 tents and other relief supplies. Much of it would have to be airlifted in Pakistan and Iran.

The United Nations has been supporting 5 million Afghans left hungry and displaced inside their country by decades of war and three years of severe drought.

So far, only a trickle of people have succeeded in getting through to Pakistan and Iran. With the two countries already looking after nearly four million Afghan refugees, some of whom have been in camps for more than a decade, both have closed their borders.

Tensions are particularly high in Pakistan, which fears an influx of refugees will increase unrest among Pashtun tribes. They share a common ethnic background with Afghanistan's ruling Taliban. Pakistan-based groups linked to the Taliban said they had sent fighters to Baluchistan province, bordering the Taliban heartland in southern Afghanistan, to defend it against any American attempt at invasion.

The United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees is urging Pakistan and Iran to let in the refugees, and is seeking to establish nearly 100 new camps in Pakistan's border areas. UNHCR officials in Quetta, Baluchistan's capital, secured agreement for the border at Chaman, three hours away, to be reopened, but Pakistani authorities rescinded the decision after a rocket-launcher was found in a car crossing from Afghanistan. This heightened fears that Taliban agents might be seeking to infiltrate the area in the midst of refugees, and the UNHCR said it could not get a date for the reopening.

Aid agencies fear that conditions are worsening among refugees bottled up at the border. According to the UNHCR, up to 20,000 are on the Afghan side of the Chaman crossing, of whom roughly half are living in the open in searing temperatures.

Ross Mountain, the head of UN humanitarian co-ordination in Geneva, said Afghans who made it to the squalid refugee camps neighbouring their country would probably be "the lucky ones", leaving behind millions of weakened people with little food.

"Our concern right now is how we are going to reach those who are locked inside Afghanistan," Mr Mountain said. In the worst case, those needing UN help could increase by half to 7.5 million.

Six UN agencies warned that many of those already at risk were women and children "with a fragile grip on survival". Relief efforts have been disrupted by the withdrawal of foreign aid workers and a Taliban crackdown on local staff using satellite phones to keep in touch with their agencies. In Kandahar, the Taliban seized 1,400 tons of food stocks held by the World Food Programme.