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Afghanistan: Refugees Seek Proof Behind U.S. Accusations

There have been widespread demonstrations by Pakistanis and Afghan refugees in Pakistan against the military action most believe America will take against the Taliban regime in Afghanistan. The U.S. accuses the Taliban of sheltering Osama bin Laden, the chief suspect behind the terrorist attacks in America earlier this month. RFE/RL correspondent Askold Krushelnycky reports from Peshawar, on Pakistan's northwest border with Afghanistan.

Peshawar, 25 September 2001 (RFE/RL) -- Peshawar is a bustling town full of the excited shouts of traders and visitors from both sides of the Pakistan-Afghan border and the shrill horns of the thousands of vehicles that crowd the dusty roads.

Colorfully, if garishly, decorated buses and trucks compete for space on the streets with cars, motorized rickshaws, donkey-drawn carts and heavily laden camels.

The aromas of jasmine, smoke from wood fires, and the spices used in cooking collide with the odor of fuel exhaust belching from vehicles and human sweat in the sweltering heat.

It is here that Pakistan's fiercest antigovernment and anti-American demonstrations have taken place. Demonstrators say they want proof that Osama bin Laden is involved in terrorist actions. They also condemn the military government of President Pervez Musharraf for abandoning its support of the Islamic Taliban regime and for siding with the United States, which they say wants to destroy Islam.

At a market under a huge British Empire-era fortress, Pathan tribespeople from both sides of the border conduct business and sip sweet green tea in outdoor shops. Thirty-eight-year-old Sayeed Rahman says he is a Taliban fighter who has crossed the border to visit his family, who has been living in one of the huge refugee camps near Peshawar. Thousands of refugees fled to the region following the Soviet invasion of Afghanistan in 1979. Many still remain, and new Afghan refugees fleeing a possible U.S. attack have swelled their numbers.

Rahman says he agreed with the decision made last week by Afghan elders to ask bin Laden to leave Afghanistan voluntarily. Taliban leader Mullah Mohammad Omar also endorsed that decision.

Rahman was asked whether he believes a war with America is inevitable:

"It's not like that. The Taliban are saying that if Osama bin Laden is responsible, we want him handed over. We will hand him over to a country where he can be tried, if it can be proved that he is responsible. He is a guest of the Afghans. We can't be expected to hand him over, especially if there's no evidence for it."

Like many Afghans and Pakistanis, Rahman blames the U.S. for advancing policies that harm Muslims, such as Washington's support for Israel in its conflict with the Palestinians. But he emphasizes that his religion condemns terrorism and that he and most of his Taliban comrades disapproved of the 11 September attacks on America.

"We are not happy about [the attacks]. The explosions were dreadful. It's not Islamic, and Islam does not accept such methods that in a country, whatever that country, you attack the country and create problems for it. This is not Islamic, and whoever does this, we will lay down our lives to stand up against them. Anyone who did this should be put on trial, but if proven innocent, they should be freed."

Most Afghans living in Pakistan are considered supporters of the Taliban. But Fahim Nuri, a 20-year-old Afghan refugee, says it was unwise to publicly express opposition to the Taliban while Pakistan supported the Taliban. But he says he believes that -- now that Pakistan has sided with America -- many Afghan refugees will declare themselves against the Taliban and voice support for the Northern Alliance opposition.

Nuri says he would support an American attack against Afghanistan only if it targets terrorism. If the attack turns into an invasion of Afghanistan or is seen as an attack on Islam, he says that he himself will be ready to fight against the U.S.:

"If they attack against terrorism, I am also ready to attack terrorism. But not if they want to hijack Islam or attack Islam. I am in defense of Islam. I pray every day five times. And now I want to say I don't want any country to hijack [Islam]."

The Northern Alliance says it is making preparations to take advantage of any U.S. military attack by taking back Taliban-held territory. The opposition is already claiming to have made advances and that it is positioning its forces to strike at the Afghan capital, Kabul, and the key northern city of Mazar-i-Sharif.

Afghanistan has seen many conflicts during the past 20 years -- against its own communists, the Soviet invasion of 1979, and finally, the current civil war. Rahman admits that his country is war-weary:

"If one is pushed into war, you have to fight. If people want to attack Afghanistan, then Afghanistan will defend itself. But Afghans are fed up with war."

In the last two years, Afghanistan has been ravaged by drought. Now, it seems, whatever the U.S. and its allies do, the Afghan people will suffer more misery -- and one of the world's most impoverished nations will face another savage upsurge in fighting.