U.N. pulling out staff from Afghanistan

Associated Press Writer

KABUL, Afghanistan (AP) -- The United Nations began pulling its foreign staff out of Afghanistan on Wednesday and the mothers of two detained American women were to leave as well amid fears that terrorist attacks in the United States could prompt retaliatory strikes.

The world body said it was temporarily moving its international staff out of Afghanistan "due to circumstances prevailing internationally."

The relocation began Wednesday and is expected to be completed by Thursday, said a U.N. statement issued in Geneva. It said up to 80 international employees were located in six Afghan cities -- Kabul, Jalalabad, Mazar, Kandahar, Herat and Faizabad.

At least four German nationals employed with other aid groups were to leave later Wednesday, said Helmut Landes, consular officer of the German Embassy in neighboring Pakistan.

Speculation is rife in Kabul that the United States will blame suspected terrorist mastermind Osama bin Laden for deadly terror attacks Tuesday in New York and Washington. Because Afghanistan gives bin Laden sanctuary, there are fears of a U.S. retaliatory strike.

The decision to leave Afghanistan was not expected to immediately affect eight foreign workers with the aid group Shelter Now International -- including two Americans -- who are being tried in Kabul on charges of preaching Christianity.

John Mercer, the father of jailed American Heather Mercer, 24, was to stay in Afghanistan. But her mother, Deborah Oddy, planned to leave, along with Nancy Cassell, the mother of jailed American Dayna Curry, 29, Landes said.

The diplomats trying to help the detainees also planned to stay. Landes and his Australian colleague, Alastar Adams, were to remain in Kabul. It wasn't immediately known whether David Donahue, the consul general of the U.S. Embassy in Pakistan, would leave Afghanistan.

There are about 100 expatriate staff in the Afghan capital. It's not known whether all were leaving.

The United States military attacked Afghanistan in 1998 with Tomahawk cruise missiles after two of its embassies in East Africa were bombed. Washington blamed terrorists trained by bin Laden. The missiles hit eastern Afghanistan, where at least two of bin Laden's camps were believed to be located.

About 20 men, mostly Pakistani militants, were killed. Bin Laden escaped.