Monday, February 8, 2010

Helmand Refugees Fleeing Ahead Of Anti-Taliban Offensive

Helmand Refugees Fleeing Ahead Of Anti-Taliban Offensive

By Elias Dai, Ron Synovitz, Radio Free Europe/Radio Liberty

Hundreds of Afghan families have been fleeing Taliban-controlled territory in the southern Afghan province of Helmand ahead of an expected offensive by NATO and Afghan government troops.

As many as 2,000 Taliban fighters reportedly are concentrated and fortifying themselves in and around the town of Marjah.

Fearful of being caught in the violence, some residents are heading for Helmand's provincial capital of Lashkar Gah or places in neighboring Kandahar province that they consider to be relatively safe.

At the central bus station in Lashkar Gah, buses arriving straight from the town of Marjah have been packed full of the displaced in recent days. Meanwhile, many trucks can be seen along the road -- loaded with furniture, home appliances, and other personal belongings of fleeing families.

Mauwla Dad, a truck driver from Marjah, tells RFE/RL he has made more than a dozen recent journeys, shuttling families and their belongings to safe haven.

"Every day, I have been providing transportation for three or four families," Dad says. "People are leaving Marjah amid rumors that the [anti-Taliban] offensive could begin any day now."

A Radio Free Afghanistan correspondent in Helmand Province reports that villagers also are escaping to the nearby districts of Baba-ji, Nad-Ali, and Gereshk.

But Brigadier James Cowen, the British commander of Task Force Helmand, tells Reuters in Lashkar Gah that he thinks reporters are blowing the civilian movements out of proportion.

"I think those reports of fleeing residents is a little exaggerated, in fact. I mean there are some leaving the area, but by no means the numbers that the news are reporting," Cowen says, according to Reuters. "I think we may see more of that in the forthcoming days, but we are keeping a close eye on it."

Families Uprooted

Ghulam Farouq Noorzai, who heads the Afghan government's refugee affairs department in Helmand Province, says officials have formed an "emergency commission" with plans to receive 15,000 families. They have also sent a delegation to meet with UN humanitarian aid officials responsible for southern Afghanistan.

"The World Health Organization, the World Food Program, and the United Nations Refugee Agency -- the UNHCR -- have accepted our plan," Noorzai says.

Noorzai tells RFE/RL that villagers in and around Marjah are gravely concerned about the expected military offensive. He says many are staying in their homes for now because they have no place to go, but adds that a flood of displaced families are expected in Lashkar Gah and in nearby Kandahar Province once the anticipated offensive begins.

"Around 400 to 500 families already have arrived [in Lashkar Gah]," Noorzai says. "Our emergency commission is registering these displaced people. We have created a refugee center at a school ground in Lashkar Gah and plan to move them there soon."

Haji Akhtar Mohammad, a resident of Marjah, tells Reuters that he considers the offensive a necessary step by Afghan and NATO forces to keep the province free from the kind of intimidation that Taliban fighters have imposed on residents of his community.

"The military operation is being launched in our village in order to keep us from any possible danger," Mohammad says, according to Reuters. "I decided to leave the village [for now] and we are heading to Lashkar Gah to rent a house."

Military Might

Meanwhile, NATO and Afghan government checkpoints have been set up around the Marjah district in an attempt to stop Taliban fighters from slipping out of the area among the fleeing civilian population.

RFE/RL's correspondent in Helmand reports that scattered clashes were occurring today at villages in the nearby district of Nad-Ali, where NATO and Afghan government troops have set up blocking positions.

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  1. "NATO and Afghan government checkpoints have been set up around the Marjah district in an attempt to stop Taliban fighters from slipping out of the area among the fleeing civilian population"
    How do they id Taliban amongst legit civs? Afghan govt forces reputedly corrupt and illiterate so same question for their check-points

  2. Brig Cowan quoted as saying nos of refugees are overstated. When the offensive starts, how will our troops know who is good or bad and id enemy before enemy has engaged them?

  3. It's to be hoped all the "refugees" are being checked for weaponss and any found are confiscated and the "refugee" interogated.