Deaths from hunger in a month, warn aid workers

War on Terrorism: Famine
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The Independent Online

Aid agencies helping to feed more than three million people in Afghanistan are warning that unless the World Food Programme, a UN agency, lifts its 12-day suspension on deliveries, people could start dying of hunger in less than a month.

The WFP put shipments on hold the day after the terrorist attacks on New York and Washington, saying it would not resume them until it could be sure that supplies were not being improperly diverted.

The agency's decision was savaged at an emergency meeting in the Pakistani capital over the weekend by representatives of the US and the European Union as well as all of the 30 non-governmental organisations present. But Khaled Adly, the agency's regional head, insisted that unless the WFP could monitor where the food was going, stocks would remain in warehouses in neighbouring countries.

One official said: "The WFP has never taken this line in any previous conflict. Its people on the ground have kept supplies moving at considerable danger to themselves, even if some of it was being stolen ... We all said that now was the time to do what we can while we can."

Sources say the agency's figures show that some 400,000 people in north-western Afghanistan will run out of food in two weeks. Within three months, more than two million people will be starving if no more food gets through. Another official added: "That assessment was based on people staying put. The threat of attack has got half the population on the move, which puts more of them at risk.

"At this time of year we are normally moving supplies into Afghanistan as fast as possible, so as to get four months' worth in position by the end of October, when winter starts to make movement impossible ... If no more food gets in, you can expect people to start dying by mid-October."

John Wilder, Afghanistan country representative for the US branch of Save the Children, said he hoped the WFP would change its mind soon. His organisation still has 200 local staff within Afghanistan, who could distribute supplies.

Alex Renton, a spokesman for Oxfam, ssaid that since 11 September the agency had shipped 1,500 tons of grain to Herat, in western Afghanistan, where it had 40 local staff still able to distribute supplies.

Washington has been accused of putting pressure on the UN to hold back food, but recently the State Department said the US would continue to be the largest source of aid to the country. One aid worker said: "It would be politically disastrous for the Americans to be seen to be hurting ordinary Afghans."