UN opens new route for food and clothing

War on terrorism: Aid
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United Nations aid workers opened a new corridor into Afghanistan as they increased efforts to prevent starvation of about three million people in the "hunger belt" to the north of the country.

More than 50 tons of food, clothing, blankets and footwear was sent in by river barge across the border from Uzbekistan, the first time the route has been used to channel supplies into Afghanistan.

The move came as humanitarian agencies struggled to keep up with a fluid situation but predicted that the collapse of the Taliban throughout swaths of the country should help their work.

At the moment the picture is mixed. Yesterday's shipment left the southern Uzbek port of Termez on the Amu Darya river for an 18km journey upstream to the Afghan town of Hairaton after the authorities opened a border that has been closed since 1998. Truckloads of aid, which had been due to leave from north-west and south-western Pakistan, were held back because civilian drivers refused to enter Afghanistan because of worries for their security.

The World Food Programme believes that 52,000 tons of aid needs to be delivered each month to prevent starvation among the six million Afghans still at risk. It says that it has already raised 63 per cent of its $257m (£178m) planned spending for the region but is appealing for aircraft to fly aid into the country and has not ruled out the possibility of air drops in remote regions.

The security position, and the level of confusion caused by returning refugees, are now central to the effectiveness of the aid effort and the race to prevent starvation.

Yesterday, foreign aid workers were beginning to return to Kabul, Mazar-i-Sharif and Herat and their presence will help to provide a proper analysis of the country's needs. Expatriate UN staff, who had been moved out of the country, are expected to start returning this weekend.

Lindsey Davies, the WFP's spokesman in Islamabad, said: "We are using about 2,000 trucks to go in and out of the country and we have already delivered 30,000 tons of aid in the first 13 days of November. However, northern Afghan-istan is known as the 'hunger belt'. These people were reeling from drought over the last three years and, long before the TV cameras arrived to film, Afghanistan was already on the brink of a crisis."

A study in June showed that people were supplementing their diet with locusts and seeds, and girls as young as 10 were being sold as brides, she added.

With thousands on the move, there are worries that aid agencies will not be able to keep up with the rapidly changing situation. Michael Curtis, the spokesman for Poul Nielson, European commissioner for development, said: "Many of the internally displaced people will be hoping to return and that poses a challenge to the international community in terms both of providing food and blankets, and guarding against landmines."

There are now aid routes into Afghanistan from five countries: Pakistan, Turkmenistan, Tajikistan, Iran and, from yesterday, Uzbekistan.

Yesterday's cargo of aid included 50 tons of wheat flour, 2,000 blankets, 10,000 winter jackets, 1,300 pairs of boots and 10,000 collapsible water containers. With three barges at its disposal in Termez, the UN estimates that it will have the capacity to deliver 600-800 tons of aid each day.

The humanitarian aid agencies have also called on the Uzbek authorities to openthe Friendship Bridge, the main gateway between Uzbekistan and Afghanistan, to speed the flow of aid supplies.