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Humanitarian Crisis Grows in Afghanistan

The U.N. today appealed for urgent funds to help as many as 7.5 million Afghan refugees survive the coming winter.

As Afghanistan braces for possible U.S. military strikes, the UN says it foresees as many as 1.5 million refugees fleeing into Pakistan, Iran and Tajikistan.

“These figures are based on the worst-case scenario, but then we simply must be prepared for the worst,” said Ruud Lubbers, UN High Commissioner for Refugees.

About 3.5 million Afghan refugees are already living in border camps between the three countries.

Mullah Mohammad Omar, leader of the country’s ruling Taliban government, made an attempt today to stem the flood of refugees, telling fleeing Afghans to return to their homes and saying “there is less possibility of an American attack.”

The U.S. warned the Taliban of potential military strikes if the group did not turn over Osama bin Laden, an exiled Saudi millionaire dubbed a “prime suspect” in the Sept. 11 attacks against New York and Washington. Nearly 7,000 are feared dead because of those strikes.

Afghanistan’s 26 million people, many of whom suffered through an 11-year battle with occupying Societ forces, continue to deal with intense fighting in its northern region between the ruling Taliban and rebel groups.

But Lubbers worried a U.S. response could worsen the situation for the many people left poor and homeless in Afghanistan.

“Washington … [must] look very carefully at the humanitarian consequences and not … [use] disproportionate military activity that is so massive it creates humanitarian misery,” he told Reuters.

Lubbers is appealing for $252 million in aid to help the worsening situation. Lubbers said the request will aid the building of refugee campsites, supply food to the existing 80,000 tent homes and assist with other relief needs.

The 15-member European Union expressed concern as well, saying today it is considering doubling its aid to Afghan refugees to $48 million.

The UN already supports nearly 20 percent of the Afghan people through donations of food, money and supplies.

The international tension surrounding Afghanistan has forced nearly all the aid workers to leave, crippling current food programs. The UN fears many Afghans will quickly deplete their meager food reserves and military operations may cause many more to flee the cities for the safety of the countryside.

After a temporary halt, the World Food Program is resuming food shipments on a trial basis to the northern and western parts of Afghanistan. The food program says current food stocks can feed the country for three more weeks.

WFP estimates Afghans living in the northern provinces will run out of food aid as well as farm stocks within three months. The food program is also assisting cities in the southern parts of the city including the capital, Kabul.

However, in the city of Kandahar, the Taliban seized WFP food and supplies. The religious militia has threatened further action against the food program’s southern operation.

Even prior to the September 11 terrorist attacks, the United Nations had acknowledged Afghan humanitarian crisis as one of the world’s worst.

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