ISLAMABAD, Pakistan - As relief agencies in Pakistan brace for a flood of Afghan refugees, aid workers in the region are facing increased risks that have curtailed humanitarian efforts when they are most needed, U.N. officials here said yesterday.
In the Pakistani border towns of Peshawar and Quetta, U.N. workers have restricted their activities in recent days because of violent anti-American demonstrations. In Afghanistan, Taliban authorities have reportedly beaten land mine-removal workers and looted U.N. offices.
"There is little question that our task has overall kept on becoming more difficult day by day for various reasons since the 11th of September," said Eric Falt, a chief U.N. spokesman.
"What we see is a shrinking operational environment for all U.N. agencies and a determination to go on. We have a duty that we feel is sacred and we cannot afford to fail the people of Afghanistan in this hour of utmost need."
Among the most jarring reports were those of Taliban authorities beating workers charged with removing land mines, which have been a persistent problem in Afghanistan.
Mine-removal workers were assaulted in Jalalabad, Kabul, and Kandahar, U.N. officials said. Four workers accidentally were killed by airstrikes during the first day of U.S. attacks on Afghanistan.
The Taliban have reportedly stolen ambulances from mine-removal workers, U.N. officials said.
The accounts surface as the international aid community struggles to deliver hundreds of tons of food and medical supplies to impoverished Afghans and transport thousands of tents to areas near the Pakistani border before the onset of winter in about five weeks.
Officials fear a lengthy drought, the war, and the cold weather could cause a major humanitarian crisis in Afghanistan, with as many as 1.5 million refugees fleeing the country.
"The security situation in Pakistan, especially in the border areas, continues to pose a serious obstacle to the humanitarian effort under way in the region," said Yusuf Hassan, senior regional external affairs officer for the U.N. High Commissioner for Refugees in the region.
Anti-American protests and riots have plagued Pakistan since the United States began airstrikes against Afghanistan Sunday. The demonstrations have been most virulent along the Pakistan-Afghanistan border, where relief workers are trying to prepare refugee camps. The offices of several local and international relief agencies were ransacked or damaged during the demonstrations.
Some of the most violent protesters have been Afghan refugees who are living in camps in the border towns. Three Afghans were killed by police during protests in the northern Pakistani province of Baluchistan Tuesday, according to Pakistani press accounts.
The uprisings prompted the Pakistani government to threaten to repatriate Afghan refugees who demonstrate against the U.S. attacks, saying they have no right to contribute to civil disturbances in a country where they are guests.
"The refugees are given shelter in this country because they are refugees. They should confine themselves to being refugees," a spokesman for Pakistan's ministry of foreign affairs said yesterday. "They should not get involved in political agitation, and if they do, they should be sent back."
Meanwhile, the Taliban ambassador to Pakistan continued to praise the uprisings, saying America's "terrorist attacks" against Afghanistan have "sparked up the fury of not only the people of Afghanistan, but all the Muslim world and other justice and freedom-loving people of the globe."
Abdul Salam Zaeef, the last remaining international representative of the Taliban government, said at a news conference that parcels of food air-dropped by the United States are "a mockery and disregard and dishonor to the people of Afghanistan.
"Afghans know it is not generosity of America but a hypocritical diplomacy," Mr. Zaeef said. "America will not be able to purchase the Afghans by money or food."
Mr. Zaeef, who arrived a few minutes before the news conference in a gleaming black Mercedes, suggested that further terrorist attacks against the United States are possible.
"I can say as long as America is shedding the blood of Afghans, it will not be beneficial to America," he said. "And we will see what happens in the future."
In contrast with the uprisings of recent days, the wide, tree-lined avenues of central Islamabad were eerily quiet yesterday. Security was tight around the diplomatic area and government buildings, and armed guards stood behind walls of sandbags at major intersections.
Green-uniformed snipers patrolled the roof of the Islamabad Marriott, the most luxurious hotel in Pakistan's capital, which has become a de facto press center for the legions of journalists who have descended on the city in the last three weeks.
Many here are anticipating fewer protests between now and Friday, the holiest day of the Muslim week. Islamic fundamentalist groups are expected to conduct major anti-American demonstrations in a number of Pakistani cities tomorrow.
Vanessa Gezari is a former Blade staff writer who is living in India.