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AFGHANISTAN: Fleeing on foot at night
A map of Afghanistan highlighting the restive southern province of Hilmand (also spelt Helmand)
KABUL, 8 February 2010 (IRIN) - Hundreds of civilian families are fleeing parts of Helmand Province, southern Afghanistan, ahead of a major military operation by foreign and Afghan forces
The offensive is expected to drive Taliban insurgents out of Marjah, which has an estimated population of 80,000 people, according to government officials, and the surrounding area.
"Marjah has been surrounded by Afghan and foreign forces but people have told us the Taliban are not allowing them to get out of there," Ahmadullah Ahmadi, director of the Afghan Red Crescent Society (ARCS) office in Helmand, told IRIN.
Many were fleeing the area on foot at night, and without taking any belongings with them, he said, adding: "About 300 families have fled the Nad Ali and Babaji areas and over 100 families have left Marjah over the past week."
Some had sought refuge in Lashkargah, the provincial capital, while others had gone to other relatively secure districts.
Dawod Ahmadi, a spokesman for the governor of Helmand, said 95 families had arrived in Lashkargah from Marjah as of 8 February.
The government says it is not encouraging people to leave their homes.
"The operation has been designed to avoid harm to civilians and we have not asked people to leave their homes," provincial spokesman Dawod Ahmadi told IRIN.
However, leaflets warning of an imminent military operation dropped in Marjah by NATO helicopters may have prompted some to leave, though the insurgents are reportedly preventing civilians from moving out of areas currently under their control.
The UN and rights watchdogs have accused the insurgents of deliberately using civilians and their homes as a defensive shield. No Taliban spokesperson was immediately available for comment.
Among those leaving Marjah and its environs are some Taliban supporters or sympathizers who may not opt to seek refuge in Laskargah city, aid workers say.
"These families usually go to other districts but often do not receive assistance" said ARCS's Ahmadi.
However, the provincial authorities have given assurances that a relief committee set up to assist the displaced would seek to provide aid without discrimination.
"Those fleeing the conflict are not fighters but innocent women and children and we would assist them," said Dawod Ahmadi, the provincial spokesman.
Whilst many displaced people are believed to be seeking temporary refuge with relatives and friends in Lashkargah city and elsewhere in the province, some would inevitably need shelter assistance, according to aid workers.
"The weather is cold and shelter is need number one for the displaced," said ARCS's Ahmadi.
The provincial government has earmarked a newly-built school in Lashkargah city to shelter about 100 displaced families.
Provincial spokesman Ahmadi said: "We believe this will be a short-term displacement and people will be able to return to their homes soon after military operations are complete."