UN fears refugee crisis as thousands flee border

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The Independent Online

Thousands of desperate people who fear an American attack are pouring out of Afghanistan into Pakistan.

The United Nations said about 4,000 people had made the journey in the past 48 hours and it expects between 3,000 to 4,000 a day to continue to stream across the border. The refugees continue to come despite Pakistan's attempts to close the border. About 5,000 of them are stuck at the border near Kandahar, barred from passing. Others are crossing the border in remote areas.

Meanwhile, more than 3,000 people, chanting "Pakistan will be the graveyard of the US army", demonstrated against the government in Karachi yesterday, emphasising the dangers for Pakistan's President, General Pervez Musharraf, in co-operating with Washington's war against terrorism.

The protest was the largest so far since Pakistan agreed to help the US to respond to last week's atrocities in New York, Washington and Pennsylvania. The US blames the attacks on Osama bin Laden, the Saudi-born militant who has been given shelter in Afghanistan.

"America, don't hunt what you can't kill," demonstrators shouted in English. There have been scattered protests in Pakistan in support of the Taliban and against America, but in an ominous development for General Musharraf, yesterday there were slogans for the first time warning him against helping President Bush.

Far more people are likely to come out on to the streets on Friday, when a coalition of Islamic militant groups and religious parties, defying a government ban, has called for a national strike and a rally in Lahore to demonstrate against an expected American attack on Afghanistan. Pakistan has so far avoided specifying what assistance it will give, but it has already closed its border with Afghanistan, and is assumed to have agreed to US and allied warplanes overflying and landing on its territory.

The government has remained silent on the even more controversial question of whether to open up Pakistani bases to Western ground forces, but the show of opposition in Karachi, the only port in the country capable of handling shipments of heavy weapons and equipment, highlights the danger that such forces could be vulnerable to attack long before they even approached the borders of Afghanistan.

No such threats were made at yesterday's demonstration, which was peaceful, if noisy. However, the protesters carried posters portraying Mr bin Laden as a hero, and warning of more suicide terrorist attacks in the US by Islamic "martyrs" if American forces attacked the Taliban or tried to seize him.

"Until now, only one World Trade Centre has been destroyed. But we will destroy all of America. We will die for Taliban. We will die for Islam. We will die for Osama," the protesters shouted.

Clerics at a meeting on Monday of the Pakistan and Afghanistan Defence Council, a grouping of all the main Sunni Muslim bodies in Pakistan, also threatened General Musharraf with dire political consequences if he provided ground or air facilities to American forces. "We should issue an edict of jihad [holy war]," said Maulana Malik Abdul Raoof, a Sunni cleric. "If the government bows down under American pressure, there should be a jihad against it as well."

The council did not take up his proposal, but the dangers for the President are clear. Radical religious parties have never gained more than about 5 per cent of the vote in Pakistan's periods of multiparty democracy, but they are well financed and better organised than more secular political groups, particularly when it comes to stirring up trouble in the streets. The sight of American or allied forces on Pakistani soil would trigger the kind of emotions that the religious radicals are adept at exploiting.

General Musharraf lacks democratic credentials himself, having seized power from the elected Nawaz Sharif nearly two years ago, and has already had to give way to the religious parties on other issues, notably when he tried to curb their funding. Yesterday, a cartoon in one of the country's still outspoken newspapers showed him held at gunpoint between Uncle Sam and an Islamic cleric. "Between the devil and deep sea," read the headline.