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UN races to build Afghan aid reserves

By Joe Havely
CNN Hong Kong Bureau

ISLAMABAD, Pakistan (CNN) -- The United Nations World Food Program says it is intensifying efforts to deliver food aid inside Afghanistan before large areas of the country are cut off by the onset of winter.

With tensions rising in the region ahead of possible U.S. military action aid agencies are warning that millions of Afghans, the majority of them women and children, are at risk of starvation.

Earlier this week the first WFP food convoy since the current crisis began arrived in the Afghan capital, Kabul, bringing with it 218 metric tonnes of food.

Other convoys have followed since, heading for both Kabul and the northwestern city of Herrat.

Trucks have also been sent from the former Soviet republics of Turkmenistan and Tajikistan to distribution centers in Taliban-controlled northern Afghanistan and the Northern Alliance-controlled northeastern region respectively.

In Kabul alone the agency estimates that at least 60,000 families are entirely dependent on the WFP bakeries for survival. Asia
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Across the country, even before the current crisis began, the WFP says it was estimating that 5.5 million Afghans would be partially or fully dependent on food aid during the winter.

On top of that there are now thought to be tens of thousands of "internally displaced persons" -- who have fled urban areas fearing the prospect of U.S. attacks but have no means of supporting themselves in the countryside.

'Hunger Belt'

Officials say supplies across the vulnerable northern "Hunger Belt" of Afghanistan are dangerously low and could run out by the end of the week leaving hundreds of thousands of people without food.

As well as resupplying these key areas, the WFP's spokesman in Islamabad, Franceso Luna, says the agency is also aiming to build up buffer stocks before travel to the region becomes impossible in mid-November.

By then heavy snow usually blocks mountain passes into northern and central Afghanistan leaving tens of thousands of people cut off from aid.

He told CNN that for the moment there have been no major problems in getting deliveries through.

"Travel in Afghanistan is always difficult," he said, the number of checkpoints and control posts have increased, but there have been no major problems so far."

Although other aid agencies have virtually ceased operations in Afghanistan, the UN distribution centers remain operational with local Afghan staff.

They have been banned by the ruling Taliban from using outside communication equipment, making coordination with WFP headquarters in Islamabad extremely difficult.

The WFP says it needs to deliver about 52,000 tonnes each month to more than six million vulnerable Afghans to prevent the possible war and winter creating a "humanitarian catastrophe".

Donkey trails

As well as trucks, aid deliveries are also being made by donkey, better suited to crossing rugged mountain passes.

Earlier this week the United Nations Children's Fund (UNICEF) announced it had sent four large convoys of aid from Pakistan to the Afghan cities of Kabul, Herat, Jalalabad and Kandahar.

Another, headed for the remote province of Badakhshan, was being carried by some 800 donkeys across the high altitude pass from Pakistan's Northwestern Frontier.

So far the anticipated flood of refugees out of Afghanistan into neighboring countries has not yet materialized, although that may of course change dramatically if military strikes do begin.

Nonetheless, aid agencies say millions of dollars in aid is urgently required to help those inside Afghanistan, many of whom are too poor or too weak to leave the country.


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