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UN: Thousands Fleeing Southern Afghanistan - 2002-01-02

The United Nations says thousands of people in southern Afghanistan are fleeing to the border with Pakistan. The U.S. military is stepping up its operations near the southern city of Kandahar, in an area where Taleban leader Mohammed Omar is believed to taken refuge.

The United Nations says about 5,000 people, mostly from the Kandahar region in southern Afghanistan, arrived Tuesday at refugee camps near Chaman, a border town in neighboring Pakistan. An aid worker in Kandahar told U.N. officials that thousands of others are also preparing to leave in the coming days.

U.N. spokeswoman Stephanie Bunker in Kabul says the mass exodus reverses what had been steady progress toward resettling Afghan refugees in Afghanistan.

"This is the first time in several weeks that we are seeing such large numbers of new arrivals from Afghanistan. On the contrary, the trend has been in the opposite direction and the UNHCR is looking into why this is occurring at this particular time," she said.

What may be prompting people to leave Kandahar is the fear that the United States could begin a new bombing campaign. On Monday, scores of U.S. troops left their military base near Kandahar and headed northwest toward the mountain village of Baghran, about 160 kilometers from the former Taleban stronghold.

The leader of Afghanistan's new interim government, Hamid Karzai, says the operation is aimed at capturing Taleban leader Mohammed Omar, who is believed to be hiding out near Baghran with 1,500 fighters.

Meanwhile, anti-Taleban commanders in southern Afghanistan have confirmed that they are negotiating with tribal leaders in Baghran for the surrender of Mohammed Omar. The commanders say they want to capture the Taleban cleric without bloodshed.

Mohammed Omar is second only to Osama bin Laden on the U.S. most wanted list.