US pledges £220m in aid as gesture to Afghan 'friends'

War on terrorism: Relief
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President Bush pledged $320m (£220m) of humanitarian aid for Afghanistan yesterday, the first instalment of what Washington says will grow into a long-term rebuilding programme for the country in the post-Taliban era.

"This is our way of saying that, while we strongly and firmly oppose the Taliban regime, we are friends with the Afghan people," Mr Bush said. He spoke as his Defence Secretary, Donald Rumsfeld, was in the Middle East nailing down final details ahead of the imminent US-led military action against Osama bin Laden and his Taliban protectors.

The sum announced by the President in a speech at the State Department represents $295m of new money, on top of an emergency $25m released by Mr Bush at the weekend. White House officials said $100m would be dispensed at once.

Some of it will bolster United Nations aid programmes for refugees who crossed into Iran and Pakistan. Part will be delivered by air drops inside the country, aimed at "internal refugees" – people displaced after 11 September but still trapped inside Afghanistan.

The Pentagon said the parachute drops would almost certainly involve so-called "humanitarian daily ration" packages. Each HDR pack includes food for one person for a day.

Mr Bush's offer came as Kofi Annan, the UN secretary general, appealed for 500,000 tons of emergency food aid. With the bitter Afghan winter fast approaching, Mr Annan made an urgent request for almost $600m of assistance.

From the start of the crisis, the US has been at pains to make clear that its enemy is Mr bin Laden's al-Qa'ida network and those who shelter it, "not ordinary Afghans, Arabs or Muslims". The aid package is another way of making this clear.

If anything this concern has only increased as the crisis has progressed, with an awareness that anything that smacked of reprisals against Islam would merely guarantee more, possibly even deadlier, terrorism in the future.

Mr Bush has repeatedly gone out of his way to make gestures towards Arab and Muslim Americans. It is an unspoken theme of Mr Rumsfeld's current trip to the region.

The Bush administration is now telling foreign governments that it will be a major contributor to the post-war reconstruction of Afghanistan.

Mr Rumsfeld was in Oman yesterday, where the US has military bases, before travelling to Cairo to meet the Egyptian President, Hosni Mubarak. Today he goes to Uzbekistan, the former Soviet republic whose bases the US wants to use in the offensive against Mr bin Laden and the Taliban.