Taliban making relief impossible, says UN aid chief

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The United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR) has rejected complaints by the Taliban that it is not doing enough for refugees inside the country, and accused the regime of presiding over a breakdown of law and order that makes humanitarian work almost impossible.

"Afghans are living a catastrophe, and it is being abetted by the civil war in the country and by the extremely harsh policies of the Taliban," the UNHCR's spokesman, Peter Kessler, said. "We have had vehicles stolen, and three of our offices have been taken over by the Taliban, two of them in the last week alone."

Mr Kessler was responding to comments made by the Taliban's ambassador to Pakistan, Abdul Salam Zaeef, who claimed on Monday that the only threat to aid workers was from the coalition's bombing and that the UNHCR's reluctance to work in Afghanistan was politically motivated.

Privately at least, UN officials and non-governmental organisations attempting to work in Afghanistan are agreed that the bombing is a serious impediment to the delivery and distribution of aid.

But the situation has been made even more dangerous by the aggression of local Taliban units, which have taken over offices, stolen vehicles and in some cases beaten up Afghan employees of international organisations.

The UN High Commissioner for Refugees, Ruud Lubbers, met Mr Zaeef during his visit to Islamabad last week, and asked him to guarantee the safety of aid workers and their property. Mr Kessler said: "He promised to do his best, but the promise is unfulfilled. Twelve hours later we learned that our office at Spin Boldak at the Chaman order crossing with Pakistan had been taken over. The Taliban need to do much more to ensure law and order."

The Taliban's ban on any kind of work for women means that it is very difficult to judge and meet the needs of Afghanistan's women, and refugees have reported that the regime is using refugee camps inside the country to recruit soldiers forcibly.

With the harsh Afghan winter already drawing in, and the inadequate distribution of aid to vulnerable parts of the country, aid workers are becoming resigned to a huge humanitarian disaster. Privately, they have given up hope of a pause in the bombing. Bulldozers can be used to postpone the inevitable freezing over of mountain passes, and there will also be air-drops of food and blankets sealed in snow-proof bags. But these are regarded as imperfect compromise solutions to a situation that was predicted weeks ago.

The UN Children's Fund (Unicef) believes that 100,000 more children could die from hunger, exposure and preventable diseases before the spring, on top of the 300,000 who already perish annually.

The most vulnerable area is the central highlands of Afghanistan, particularly the region of Hazarajat, whose remoteness from neighbouring Pakistan makes the supply of aid difficult. Aid workers anticipate a situation in which millions of Afghans spending the freezing winter living in single rooms, and sleeping alongside their animals to keep warm.

Meanwhile the UN refugee agency warned that young Afghans who have fled to camps on the borders with Iran and Pakistan are under serious threat.

Kris Janowski, a spokesman for the UN High Commissioner for Refugees, said: "The presence of armed fighters in or near the camps presents an obvious danger to the displaced, including for young men who continue to risk forced recruitment by both the Taliban and the opposition Northern Alliance. The Commissioner has sought an urgent meeting with the Iranian authorities to discuss the situation in Makaki camp, which is inside Afghanistan and run by the Iranian Red Crescent. A 12-year-old boy was shot and killed there on Monday. The camp already houses 6,000 people and a further 1,000 are living rough outside it because they have not been admitted.