Help for Afghans finally gets through

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The Independent Online

The first Western humanitarian relief for the millions of people in Afghanistan believed to be fleeing civil war, starvation and the threat of US air strikes finally started to trickle through at the weekend.

A UN convoy of food was heading for the Afghan capital, Kabul, last night. It will be the first shipment of food to reach Taliban-controlled areas since the 11 September attacks.

The fate of the World Food Programme's convoy will be crucial to future aid supplies. If it gets through to the capital, others will follow, UN officials say. Amid mounting alarm, the agency decided to act even without being given security guarantees from the Taliban.

On Saturday, a Red Cross truck loaded with medical supplies arrived in Kabul. And in Quetta, on Pakistan's side of its border with Afghanistan, an emergency flight organised by the UN High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR) arrived. It was carrying enough plastic sheeting for shelter for 50,000 refugees.

More than 100 refugee camp sites have been identified by the Pakistanis but ensuring there are water supplies, let alone security, will be extremely difficult. International aid workers were forced to pull out of Afghanistan after the terrorist attacks on New York and Washington.

About 50,000 refugees have crossed into Pakistan in the last two weeks, even though the border is closed.

In what it calls the "worst-case scenario", the UNHCR has also called for preparations to be made for an influx of 400,000 people to Iran, and 50,000 each to Turkmenistan and Tajikistan. Filippo Grandi, the UNHCR chief of mission in Afghanistan, said: "According to our estimates, about 1.5 million refugees will go to neighbouring countries ­ one million to Pakistan, 400,000 to Iran and the rest to Central Asian countries."

More than 3 million Afghan refugees are already sheltering in conditions of extreme hardship in Pakistan and Iran. Millions more face starvation inside Afghanistan over the coming months as the harsh winter sets in.

The UN agencies last week revised their estimate of those in need of food and shelter from 5.5 million to 7.5 million. Kofi Annan, the UN Secretary General, has appealed for $584m (£397m) from the international community.