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Afghans refugees fleeing to Pakistan again

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ISLAMABAD, Jan 2 — Thousands of Afghans are fleeing the country despite a recent trend for refugees to return home and are now trying to get into Pakistan, a United Nations spokeswoman said on Wednesday.

Nearly 5,000 arrived at the border town of Chaman on Tuesday, and thousands more are reported to be preparing to flee the southern city of Kandahar, Fatoumata Kaba of the United Nations High Commission for Refugees told a news briefing.

"This is the first time in several weeks that we are seeing such a large number of arrivals from Afghanistan," she said.

They are now stranded in no man's land between Afghanistan and Pakistan, hoping to be allowed into Pakistan's Killi Faizo refugee camp.

Kaba said UNHCR did not know why so many people were gearing up to leave Kandahar, when other border crossings have seen displaced people returning home after the collapse of the radical Islamic Taliban government in December.

But the Taliban may still have support in and around Kandahar, the movement's spiritual heartland.

U.S. Marines and local anti-Taliban forces headed by intelligence chief Haji Gullalai believe Taliban leader Mullah Omar is in hiding with 1,500 fighters near the town of Baghran, some 160 km (100 miles) from Kandahar.

The UNHCR plans talks on Wednesday with the Pakistan government to discuss accomodation for the new wave of refugees.

"We are likely to be confronted with space problems if such an influx continues into the Chaman area where camps are nearing full capacity," Kaba said.

THe UNHCR is preparing to open seven new camps in Pakistan's North West Frontier Province in the coming weeks to cope with the rising numbers of refugees.

The United Nations started returning the first of some 4,000 ethnic Tajik families to their homes in the central Shomali plain on Monday, the first such project to take internally displaced people back to their homes.

The families had been living in the Panjsher Valley north of the capital, Kabul, after fighting between the Taliban and opposition Northern Alliance drove them from their homes.