Thousands of Afghan refugees fleeing allied attacks yesterday swarmed across the Pakistani border amid chaotic scenes, which aid agencies warned were likely to get worse.
Families without water and food tramped over mountains to safety in a new surge which is expected to become a flood if Pakistan officially opens its border.
More than 3,500 people, most of them women and children from the heavily bombed city of Kandahar, arrived in the southern Pakistani town of Chaman after the host authorities appeared to open the frontier temporarily for humanitarian reasons.
Exhausted new arrivals continued to plod through the gloom last night, adding to the largest influx of refugees in a single day since air strikes began, said aid workers.
Overnight air strikes on targets around Kandahar were spreading panic and prompting the latest human wave, said a spokesman for the United Nations refugee agency. "In the chaos some families have become separated. Many are waiting on the Pakistan side of the border, hoping to find missing family members who fled at the same time. They are continuing to come across."
More than 13,000 Afghans have crossed into Chaman in the past week, many having paid smugglers up to $50 (£34) - a huge sum for impoverished villagers - for the 15-hour hike. Some pay in property, such as livestock. The United Nations said another 1.5m refugees may risk the trip to Pakistan, Iran and other neighboring countries.
Ron Redmond, a UN spokesman, said the situation was chaotic. "People are arriving with no food or belongings; some families have become separated."
Fickle Pakistani border regulations - the border is open on some days and closed on others - was adding to the confusion and hardship, he said. The UN asked Islamabad for permission to take convoys of food and water to the refugees.
News leaked that the authorities planned to shut the nearest airport, at Quetta, on Sunday, in a sign that US forces may intensify activity in the region. Oxfam decided to withdraw its staff today as a security precaution.
The airport's closure would further hamper aid agency efforts to prepare refugee camps near Chaman to host 50,000 people. Pakistani red tape and western tardiness in handing over funds have not helped. "We have received a total of $12m (£8.5m) of the $50m (£34m) needed for a first phase of up to 400,000 arrivals," said Mr Redmond. "There are a lot of promises, but the money isn't there."
Kandahar, the spiritual home of Afghanistan's ruling Taliban regime, has become a ghost city with deserted streets and abandoned homes, said Hassan Ferdus, a UN health official in Islamabad. Up to 80% of the population had left, he said.
Those who failed to make it into Pakistan have swollen overcrowded villages in the countryside, with some mud houses now containing four families. Such conditions could breed variations of polio, said Mr Ferdus.
An even grimmer picture emerged from the former Soviet republic of Tajikistan, north of Afghanistan, where children in drought-hit areas have dug out rat holes to steal back the grain hoarded by rats.
"At the moment everyone's attention is on Afghanistan," said Margarita Plotnikova, spokeswoman in Tajikistan for the International Federation of Red Cross and Red Crescent Societies. "But we are doing our best to remind the world there are problems beyond Afghanistan's borders, particularly in this small country."
© Guardian Newspapers Limited 2001