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Pakistan fighting reverses flow of refugees, stirs unease in Kabul ‘Some refugees could be Islamist activists’

 KHOST, Afghanistan, July 7, (RTRS): Thousands of refugees fleeing an offensive by Pakistan’s army have poured across the lawless border into ramshackle camps on rugged hills in Afghanistan, stirring unease that Taleban militants may be hiding among them.

The mass departures over the porous border, which many in any case do not recognise, mark a change. For the first time in more than 30 years beleaguered residents are escaping into Afghanistan and not out of it, an irony not lost on local officials or refugee agencies.

Authorities in Khost province are offering a warm welcome and what little they have to shelter the newcomers. But intellgence officers and the army are uneasy - some refugees from North Waziristan province could be Islamist activists of the Pakistani Taleban, the target of Pakistan’s offensive. “These communities for decades have been the ones benefitting from support from tribal communities in North Waziristan when they had to flee,” said Bo Shack, the top official in Afghanistan of the UN High Commissioner for Refugees. “Today they want to provide these families with equal help.” Refugees poured over the border in the other direction after Soviet troops invaded Afghanistan in 1979.

More followed after Moscow’s pullout a decade later sparked mass disorder and still more fled after Afghanistan’s own Taleban took power in 1996. Some 3.8 million Afghans have returned to Afghanistan since the Taleban were ousted by a US-led coalition of forces in 2001, while 1.6 million remain there as refugees. Circumstances are now different.

The Pakistani Taleban, stronger and more audacious but with few aims in common with their Afghan brethren, last month attacked Pakistan’s largest airport outside Karachi. The military, weary of negotiations, told residents in the Taleban’s Waziristan stronghold to get out in advance of a crackdown. A two-week bombing campaign gave way to a ground offensive. Pakistani officials say all civilians have left and anyone still there is classed as a militant.

The governor of Khost province applauded the hospitality of Afghan border villages last week at a gathering of Afghan officials and UN representatives at the refugee camps. “People displaced from the other side of the border are our friends,” said governor Abdul Jabbar Naeemi. “People are trying to help families, even though they themselves haven’t much.” Mohammad Akram Khpalwak, the minister for tribal and border affairs, promised help: “We will not give them weapons. We will help give them education.”

The NDS intelligence agency, on guard against attempts by the Afghan Taleban to stage armed attacks to dislodge the Kabul government, is less sanguine. “The NDS and the governor believe the Taleban have infiltrated the camps with weapons and could use them at any time,” said a security official at the camps, declining to give his name. “Most of the families belong to the Taleban and will cross back if an operation starts here. ”Each country accuses the other of harbouring militants. Hundreds of white UN tents extend across rolling terrain dotted with sparse vegetation, with refugees putting up colourful drapes to create makeshift courtyards and a modicum of privacy. The UN sys around 77,000 are in Khost.

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