'Wave of panic' forces thousands across border into Pakistan

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The Independent Online

Thousands of terrified refugees poured out of Afghanistan yesterday in their greatest numbers yet.

"A wave of panic has swept the border," said a spokeswoman for the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees.

The UN said the influx was growing, with 3,500 crossing at the Pakistan border area of Chaman by midday, and more coming.

"We know we will lead a miserable life in Pakistan in tents. We have come here just to save our children," Abdul Qayyum, 29, told the Associated Press.

He was just one of the 80 per cent of residents who have abandoned their homes in the embattled city of Kandahar in southern Afghanistan, a Taliban stronghold. "We are not coming here by choice. We are helpless. We are poor. We don't have food, we don't have medicine and we cannot sleep in our own houses," Mr Qayyum said.

About 10,000 refugees have crossed into Pakistan's Baluchistan province over the past six days, according to Ron Redmond, a spokesman for the UNHCR.

"People are arriving with no food or belongings. Some families have become separated," he said. Refugee arrivals were being hampered by changing rules at the border. "It's erratic – some days the border is open, some days it's closed."

Most Afghans who crossed said they were fleeing the heavy bombing. Amir Agha, 42, said he saw bodies lying in Kandahar's streets.

Thousands of refugees are stranded on the Afghan side of the border – prevented from getting into Pakistan by a border shutdown that permits only Afghans with valid documentation to cross. "They're chanting slogans against the Taliban," Mr Agha said. He said some were clashing with Pakistani border guards.

Further south, Fazal Ullah, a middle-aged Afghan, crossed near Quetta with nine relatives. He said people's desperation was increasing with each day of the military bombardment. "They are selling their last belonging to escape the bombs," he said.

Samiullah, 50, a shop owner from Jalalabad, crossed into Pakistan with his wife, Zulekah, and their three children. He said they paid 1,500 rupees (£16) each for the eight-hour mule ride to the border area of Lindi Kodal.

"We didn't have anything to eat the whole way," he said. "It was a terrible journey, but we were lucky that we had money to pay those people." He said the family saw hundreds of people fleeing – most with little more than their clothing.

"They were in miserable condition. Most of them were women and children and old people," he said.