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America Strikes Back: Landmines Pose Threat to Refugees and Coalition Ground Troops

Aired October 12, 2001 - 06:22   ET


CAROL LIN, CNN ANCHOR: Leon, you were just talking about those violent protests all across the country in Pakistan and that is having an affect on what aid workers are able to do for what they're expecting to be a flood of refugees from Afghanistan.

So we're going to go to CNN's Miles O'Brien. He's got some interesting information on what's going to happen there.

Miles, morning.

MILES O'BRIEN, CNN CORRESPONDENT: Good morning, Carol, good morning.

The concerns about security within Pakistan have put the refugee aid workers in a tough position because the Pakistani authorities, out of concern for their safety, the safety of those aid workers, have forced many of them to stay basically within the confines of their offices and this has made it very difficult for them to set up the refugee camps.

Let's give you the big picture. First of all, the refugee crisis in Afghanistan, we're talking about a situation where aid workers estimate about six million people -- six million Afghans need some kind of aid just to survive. That equates to about 50,000 tons of food every month needed to be put into Afghanistan and get to those people.

Now just to put that into some perspective, the U.S. with its airdrops so far involving those C-17 cargo transports has dropped about 100,000 meals. About a half million meals are expected to be dropped. That may continue, but the numbers are staggering. It will require significant amounts of food shipments over land in order for all those people to be fed properly.

Now let's give you an orientation of the situation in and around the region and give you a sense of some of the estimates that these aid workers are giving us on the number of refugees. Pakistan is where the real problem is. There are already two million refugees on the border. These little pyramids there signify camps that are existing.

Here's the problem, though, not only are those aid workers kind of locked down in Islamabad or Pashawar but they are also finding it very difficult to set up these camps. It's difficult to find a site. These are very arid sites here, difficult to find water. And once they find sites, there are also some local ethnic considerations that need to be taken into account. In many cases, the Pakistanis have nixed their ideas for camps out of concern that it might cause tension within the region.

Let's move along -- go to Tajikistan. Now one point we should bring out here as well is that all of these neighboring countries, Tajikistan among them, have closed down their borders and thus the refugee flow is not occurring as expected. Fifty thousand were expected there. There are 15,000 there already.

The other issue that has come up is that there may not be the level of panic and concern inside Afghanistan in the wake of the bombing raids, now five nights of them, and thus the flow of refugees is not what has been anticipated.

Uzbekistan, not a lot of refugees anticipated there because of the nature of that border. The Northern Alliance is strong there as well as the fact that there are U.S. bases within that region.

Nevertheless, moving over to Turkmenistan, just a few refugees there now, 50,000 additional expected.

And here's -- the real potential problem here is Iran. There are 1.5 million refugees right along this border here in Iran. Another 400,000 are expected. The border here, once again, has been closed, and in Iran this is a big concern and has weighed into their thinking on how they handle this situation with the U.S. and how they handle the war against terrorism, if you will. Iran, of course, a devout enemy of the U.S., is allowing U.S. food shipments over land into Afghanistan. The concern in this country is that these refugee camps will become larger. And once they get set up, they're sort of difficult to dismantle. They become sort of a permanent or semi- permanent situation, a place where disease is fostered and, of course, political insurrection.

So the refugee situation is kind of a dynamic thing. There's a lot of things going on right now. The bottom line is it's a big problem, but the flow of refugees thus far has not been what has been anticipated -- Leon.

LEON HARRIS, CNN ANCHOR: Well, Miles, that may be good news because there is a hidden danger awaiting these refugees as they stream out of Afghanistan. Now you may recall the first confirmed civilian casualties in these U.S.-led strikes in Afghanistan were four workers who were helping the U.N. to clear Afghanistan of land mines. Between 5 and 10 million landmines from Afghanistan's war with the former Soviet Union are still in the ground hidden there. And they pose a real threat to these refugees, these civilians who are trying to get out and they could pose a threat to any troops who are trying to get in.

Let's talk some more about this with U.N. spokeswoman Stephanie Bunker. She joins us live this morning from Islamabad, Pakistan. Good morning, and thank you for talking with us about this this morning. First off, I'd like you to confirm for us these numbers that we've got.


HARRIS: Are there some 5 to 10 million landmines hidden there in the ground around that -- particularly in that border area between Afghanistan and Pakistan?

BUNKER: Yes, there are minefields along the Pakistan border on Afghanistan side of the border and also on the Iranian side of the border and some of these minefields are not marked.

HARRIS: Is it -- how is it -- excuse me -- how is it then that these civilians are navigating their way through this? Do they know where the landmines are even if they aren't marked?

BUNKER: Well, one of our concerns is that as civilians are on the move either across informal border crossings to Pakistan or Iran, they may not be aware of where these minefields are and of course the potential for human tragedy is there.

Our other concern is that the people moving around inside Afghanistan itself and outside of the cities and into the countrysides, there are also areas there in the rural areas where there are unmarked minefields and they could -- they could accidentally wander into them and that could pose a risk for their lives.

HARRIS: Well these minefields you say are unmarked. Does the U.N. know where they are even though they are unmarked?

BUNKER: I'm not sure that they have all been identified or not. I believe that the ones that we have identified have been marked. Those the civilians know to avoid, and there have been many, many millions -- in fact, over four million Afghans have received mine awareness training, but still, moving through unfamiliar territory under difficult circumstances with few assets probably in fear could lead to people encountering either mines or unexploded ordnance.

HARRIS: You know you call this unfamiliar territory for these people who actually live there in the country. It is definitely unfamiliar territory for any troops that may make landfall there in Afghanistan. We've been hearing reports about perhaps special forces actually being on the ground in there. Is there a coordination between the U.N. and the U.S. and Great Britain or whoever is in the coalition about where these minefields are to help them navigate around these?

BUNKER: I think that in terms of the minefields, I'm sure this information has been shared with the United Nations New York, but beyond that, I do not know .

HARRIS: It would -- I would imagine it's got to be awfully difficult for someone's who trained to actually find these and defuse them to do so, but to find -- to understand these troops are going to have to go in there and they're doing so under the cover of night, doesn't that present a particular danger?

BUNKER: I'm sorry, I could not understand your question. Could you repeat that please?

HARRIS: Oh, I'm sorry. I'm just -- I'm just wondering about the fact that any troops that have been going in or conducting operations in Afghanistan, most of the operations have been happening at night. Isn't there an additional concern about loss of life because of these mines because so much operations -- so many of these operations are being conducted at night?

BUNKER: I'm still not sure of your question, so I think we should move on.

HARRIS: OK, that's fine. I'll just let -- I'll drop...

BUNKER: The signal is not very clear.

HARRIS: Oh, I understand.

Finally, I hope you can understand this one, we have gotten word this morning that the U.N. was recipient of the Nobel Peace Prize this morning -- the U.N. and Secretary-General Kofi Annan. Do you have any reaction to that for us?

BUNKER: Well, I just heard it myself. I was having lunch and I jumped up out of my chair and screamed.

HARRIS: All right. Well listen, congratulations to all -- those of you at the -- in the U.N.

BUNKER: With pleasure.

HARRIS: Way to go, congratulations.

We understand that we're going to be talking some point this morning with Secretary-General Kofi Annan.

Stephanie Bunker, thank you very much from Islamabad, Pakistan.




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