Afghan faction blocks Kabul food convoy

A CONVOY of trucks attempting to deliver food supplies to the Afghan capital, Kabul, was turned back yesterday as the country's renegade Prime Minister, Gulbuddin Hekmatyar, tightened his blockade on the city.

Mr Hekmatyar, whose Hizbe Islami forces have been bombarding Kabul for two months in a fresh attempt to oust President Burhanuddin Rabbani's government, has prevented all but a trickle of food reaching the capital in the past two weeks. Earlier this week he seized a United Nations-organised convoy carrying more than 100 tons of food, which he distributed to his followers. The latest convoy failed to get through despite the backing of the UN, private aid groups and the Pakistan government, which announced on Wednesday that it had negotiated safe passage.

The blockade has worsened an already critical situation for Kabul's million inhabitants, a fifth of whom have been driven from their homes by incessant shelling and rocketing. Those who can afford to do so have fled the city, mainly in the direction of Jalalabad, where aid agencies are caring for more than 100,000 refugees. The snowbound capital has been without water or electricity since New Year's Day, when the latest power struggle began, and the blockade has driven food prices to five times the levels in Pakistan. Agencies still operating in Kabul are running out of supplies, and report that people are selling their household goods to buy what is left in the markets.

'Hizbe Islami is now using the weapon of hunger against the people of Kabul,' said an aid official in Peshawar. 'It is far more dangerous than any amount of rocketing.'

Aid sources say Mr Hekmatyar's campaign has been strengthened by Benazir Bhutto's government in Pakistan, which last month closed the border to all Afghans without visas. It has also insisted that aid convoys to Kabul should go by the most vulnerable route, through the Khyber Pass and Jalalabad, rather than using less-troubled southern routes. Islamabad's relations with President Rabbani's government have soured since rioters sacked the Pakistani embassy in Kabul.

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