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U.N. workers leave Afghanistan following terrorist attacks on U.S.

Updated:

KABUL, Afghanistan (AP) _ Dozens of international aid workers evacuated Kabul on Wednesday as Afghan residents panicked over what they thought might be a U.S. strike, racing into the streets at the sound of fighter jets swooping low over the capital.

``Is it from America?'' asked one person as the roar rattled windows. Another said, ``I think maybe it is an American jet.''

But the fighter jet belonged to the ruling Taliban religious militia and headed north toward opposition territory.

Still, fear is close to the surface here.

It is felt by everyone in the beleaguered Afghan capital and has been since Tuesday, when deadly terrorist attacks in the United States launched speculation that suspected Saudi terrorist mastermind Osama bin Laden _ who has lived in Afghanistan since 1996 under the protection of the Taliban _ may have been involved.

The Taliban demanded Wednesday to see evidence backing allegations that bin Laden runs a global terrorism network responsible for the airborne strikes on the World Trade Center and the Pentagon.

``We will study their evidence first. This is the first phase. The question of extradition comes later,'' Abdul Salam Zaeef, the Taliban's ambassador to Pakistan, told a news conference in Islamabad. He did not say what the Taliban would do if presented with what they consider to be compelling evidence.

The Taliban, who espouse a harsh brand of fundamentalist Islam in the roughly 95 percent of Afghanistan under their control, have always insisted that the United States provide evidence against bin Laden before they would agree to act against him in any way.

The presence of bin Laden, referred to here as ``the Guest,'' upsets many Afghans and has led to U.N. sanctions against their country, but the Taliban have refused to hand him over to the United States for prosecution on charges of masterminding the 1998 bombings of two U.S. embassies in East Africa that killed 231 people, including 219 Africans and 12 Americans.

In August 1998, in retaliation for the embassy bombings, Washington sent 70 Tomahawk cruise missiles smashing into eastern Afghanistan. Bin Laden escaped unhurt.

On Wednesday, most international aid workers, including all but four of the 80 U.N. staff in Afghanistan, left the country. The United Nations sent in three emergency flights, and more flights will arrive Thursday to take the four remaining U.N. employees to neighboring Pakistan.

The disheartened parents of two American aid workers being held here will also be aboard the U.N. aircraft Thursday. In addition to the two U.S. aid workers, six other foreign nationals are being held, accused by the Taliban of preaching Christianity in this deeply devout Muslim nation.

John Mercer, the father of Heather Mercer, 24, and Nancy Cassell, the mother of Dayna Curry, 29, will leave the Afghan capital more than two weeks after they first arrived here to be close to their children. Heather's mother, Deborah Oddy, and her husband, Delbert Oddy, from Lewiston, N.Y., arrived Sunday.

John Mercer had refused to leave, along with three Western diplomats from the United States, Australia and Germany. But instructions, apparently from their respective governments, were received late Wednesday, ordering them to vacate, U.N. officials said.

The remainder of the international relief community is also leaving Thursday, many in convoys traveling overland to Pakistan. Arab nationals living in the beleaguered capital also were seen loading their families into vehicles and heading out of the city.

Howling dogs roamed the dusty, deserted streets as darkness settled in. Shops had closed early Wednesday.

``People are afraid. Maybe you will be asleep and then suddenly the rockets from America will come,'' said carpenter Zurmai Khan.

Without television, which is banned in Taliban-ruled Afghanistan, there were no images of the horrific attacks in the United States, but throughout the capital people held small radios to their ears.

They listened to the Pashtu- and Persian-language services of the British Broadcasting Corp. and the Voice of America. Radio Shariat, the Taliban-run station, quoted ``foreign press reports.''

``It's terrible. It makes me sad. No one can bear to see a country attacked. Everyone knows it is a crazy thing. It is a very bad action on humanity,'' said drugstore operator Inayatullah, who uses only one name.

``Nobody, but nobody wants that criminal action,'' he said.
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