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Afghan refugee crisis spreads

By CNN's Steve Harrigan in Afghanistan
and Nick Easen in Hong Kong

NORTHERN AFGHANISTAN (CNN) -- Frightened refugees have begun arriving in opposition-controlled northern Afghanistan, fleeing what they believe is a pending U.S. retaliatory military strike.

In large buses, the refugees reach the end of Taliban-controlled territory and then unload with families and carry all their possessions with them across to territory controlled by the opposition Northern Alliance and then board another bus to complete their trip.

Many make the journey from Kabul, the country's capital. It is a tortuous one, involving long days in a hot, crowded bus, lumbering along mountain roads.

The price is steep, by impoverished Afghan standards, costing 500,000 Afghani, the national currency, or about $7.

Elsewhere in Afghanistan, tens of thousands of refugees continue to flock to the nation's borders with Tajikistan, Iran and Pakistan.

Knock on effect

While they are leaving mostly urban areas in fear of possible retaliatory strikes, governments and authorities are warning that should a U.S.-led military offensive occur, an exodus of refugees could strain Afghanistan's neighbors and have a knock-on effect throughout Central and South Asia.

"There is a genuine Russian concern at the Afghan refugees pouring into Central Asia, destabilizing the situation in the region," Indian National Security Advisor Brajesh Mishra, told Russian National News Agency, TASS.

"We also have concern as to how it would affect South Asia, like Taliban exodus into Pakistan."

Ahead of last Tuesday's attacks in the U.S., there had been 2 million Afghan refugees in Iran and another 2 million in Pakistan. After the strikes, thousands more have scrambled to the Iranian and Pakistani borders.

As the borders with Tajikistan, Pakistan and Iran are officially closed, regional aid organizations are preparing to react to an impending double humanitarian crisis, resulting from an estimated 1.1 million internally displaced people, and those that have the resources to flee across Afghanistan's national borders.

With the upcoming winter just around the corner, the present window of opportunity to assist these displaced people in or outside of Afghanistan is fast slipping away.

Financial resources needed

Many of the 1.1 million who are internally displaced may try to leave Afghanistan in the event of a strike against the country.

This has led the U.N. High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR) to ask that all six of Afghanistan's neighbors open up their borders to refugees.

However, with all frontiers now tightly closed and guarded, only those with contacts or money are able to make the journey to and across the border areas.

"Anybody who gets over into Pakistan, it assumes they have the resources to cross the border, it assumes they have assets. Afghans will travel as families and families are not small", Stephanie Bunker, spokeswoman for U.N. Office for Coordination of Humanitarian Activities for Afghanistan told CNN.

"With little financial resources I do not know how feasible it would be for Afghans to leave", says Olivier Bonnet, director of Medecins sans Frontier, Doctors without Frontiers in Hong Kong.

Alternatively, some have tried to sneak through porous border areas.

Under pressure

The World Food Program distribution is now at a standstill in Afghanistan, with only enough stock for the next few days.

With no national and international aid workers at their posts, there is now no assistance on the ground or any way of gauging the looming humanitarian crisis within the country.

Currently all expatriate United Nations staff have left Afghanistan and have advised Afghan nationals to leave their posts.

All aid agencies can do now is plan for the worst case scenario from the border countries -- Iran, Turkmenistan, Uzbekistan, Tajikistan, Xinjiang Province, China, and Pakistan.

The United Nations in Pakistan told CNN that it was under a lot of pressure to work out what they will need in order to react to a possible humanitarian catastrophe.

On Wednesday the U.S government made a pledge to provide more assistance to the U.N. relief agency.

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