- The Washington Times - Sunday, November 4, 2001

A new flood of Afghans fleeing the violence in the country has sparked fears that the terrorists targeted in the U.S.-led campaign could elude capture by posing as refugees.
U.S. officials and refugee-aid specialists operating in the region say they have seen no hard evidence that operatives of the al Qaeda terror network of Osama bin Laden or officials of the ruling Taliban regime have escaped through Iran or Pakistan, the two countries that harbor the great bulk of the estimated 2.6 million Afghans who have fled the country over the past two decades.
But with porous borders and significant pockets of sympathizers in both countries, they say the possibility is very real.
"It's an obvious concern in this kind of situation, especially when so much of the refugee traffic is taking place outside of government control or international oversight," said Bill Frelick, director of policy for the Washington-based U.S. Committee for Refugees.
"Whenever there is war or persecution taking place, the fear is that some of the wolves will hide in sheep's clothing to get out," he said.
Both Pakistan and Iran have sealed their borders to large new influxes of refugees since September 11, but policing their lengthy borders with Afghanistan has proven a daunting task.
Peter Bouckaert, a senior researcher for Human Rights Watch, has been in the Pakistani cities of Peshawar and Quetta for the past three weeks, interviewing dozens of the estimated 110,000 Afghan refugees who have crossed into Pakistan since the terrorist attacks on September 11.
Support for the Taliban and bin Laden is widespread in the region, where many share the ethnic Pashtun roots of the prominent Taliban officials.
Mr. Bouckaert said that he had heard of no specific cases of Taliban or al Qaeda operatives entering Pakistan posing as refugees, although several wounded Taliban fighters have been treated at local hospitals.
"If any Taliban would want to make it across the border, they certainly would have little difficulty in doing so and would find hospitality among their ethnic kin in Pakistan," he said.
Larry Thompson, director of advocacy for Refugees International, has visited Afghanistan twice this year and said his group's most recent field reports say that many of the new wave of Afghan refugees coming into Pakistan have been healthy men with possessions, not the old, young and ailing that Pakistan has said it is ready to accept.
Whether the new arrivals simply have bought their way in or have political connections to the Taliban was not clear, Mr. Thompson said.
Mr. Bouckaert said it would be more difficult for al Qaeda members to sneak across Pakistan's border as refugees. The bin Laden supporters are known popularly as "Arabs" inside Afghanistan because many are recruited from the Middle East and other countries outside the region.
"While the border areas are strongly pro-Taliban, they don't necessarily support 'foreign guests,'" Mr. Bouckaert said. "It would be much more difficult for foreigners belonging to al Qaeda to blend into society in the border areas."
With its long history of hostility to the Taliban regime, Iran's refugee situation is different from that in Pakistan. Since the September 11 attacks, Iran has attempted to control the flow of new refugees by establishing camps on Afghanistan's side of the 570-mile border.
But security tensions have increased nevertheless because the allied military campaign sparked angry protests last month among local tribes and Afghan exiles in Iran's restive Sistan-Baluchistan province on the Afghan border. Officials in Tehran reportedly were taken aback by the vehemence of protests in the provincial capital of Zahedan, where a crowd of 20,000 demonstrators stoned the Pakistani Consulate.
There already are signs that the Taliban is using the refugee crisis to its advantage.
Refugee aid groups have reported that the Taliban has been storing arms and munitions in camps within the country designated for internally displaced citizens, figuring the allied planes will not bomb those sites.
The Afghan regime also has set up its own refugee camp close to a key border crossing into Pakistan. The office of the U.N. High Commissioner for Refugees said the camp is being using to forcibly draft young men into the Taliban armed forces. Aid workers report that draft-age male refugees are giving the camp a wide berth.
"It is a real fear because we have seen this type of thing before in other camps in African countries like Rwanda," UNHCR spokeswoman Fatoumata Kaba told the Agence France-Presse news service last week. "Afghan refugees are telling us that the Taliban are distributing guns to people who don't want to fight."
Refugee advocates said the possibility that terrorists might pose as refugees was actually a reason for Pakistan to allow more Afghans into the country and house them in internationally monitored camps.
Mr. Frelick said there were well-established international laws that would allow Pakistan to screen the new arrivals for Taliban sympathizers or bin Laden operatives, something that is not happening now with the largely illegal influx.
"When people bribe their way in, don't register and then hide out, that's a much bigger security risk," he said.


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