Aid agencies start to shift food stockpile after rail bridge across river is reopened

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The Independent Online

The first train for nearly five years has crossed the Friendship Bridge, linking the Uzbek port city of Termez to the Afghan town of Hairaton. It was carrying humanitarian aid for Afghan refugees battling winter cold, disease and hunger.

The aid is urgently needed in the plains of northern Afghanistan where there has been a prolonged drought. The outbreak of war also forced many people to flee their homes at a time when they would normally be planting crops.

Uzbekistan's government closed the Soviet-era bridge across the Amy Darya river in 1996 as the Taliban consolidated their hold on Afghanistan and threatened to export their brand of fundamentalism to the central Asian republics. The first train since then set out yesterday morning, flying the Uzbek flag and adorned with a banner reading: "From the Uzbek people to the Afghan people." It carried 1,000 tons of grain and flour sent by Uzbekistan and the United Nations. The reopening of the Friendship Bridge means food stockpiled in Uzbekistan can be moved to Mazar-i-Sharif, northern Afghanistan's biggest city, .

In Kabul, the Afghan capital, the World Food Programme began to distribute 50kg sacks of wheat on Saturday, but was forced to suspend the operation yesterday when too many people turned up at the 16 distribution points. The WFP said it would start again today but would hand out the sacks at more locations in the city.

The WFP hopes to reach 1.3 million people in need in Kabul, one of the world's poorest cities, much of it in ruins from the bombardment it suffered during the 1992-96 civil war.

As security improves in northern and central Afghanistan, aid agencies are able to move food convoys on the roads. But the Salang Highway, the main road linking Kabul with the north, is still cut where the tunnel through the Hindu Kush was blown up in 1998. Some aid experts suggest it might be reopened within three weeks if heavy earthmoving equipment is made available.

The United Nations says aid is also being delivered to people in camps near Herat, in western Afghanistan. But in the southern part of the country, particularly around Kandahar, conditions remain too perilous for aid deliveries.In many districts, negotiations over the surrender of the Taliban are going slowly and bandits have taken over the roads.

While the Northern Alliance controls the north and centre of Afghanistan, there is no similar organisation uniting the Pashtun in the south. The Taliban are frequently being replaced by a motley collection of warlords hoping to grab a share of power.

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