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U.N. says 120,000 children face famine

afghan refugees
Millions of Aghans are threatened by famine and illness in the coming winter  

TERMEZ, Uzbekistan -- The United Nations is racing against time to provide aid to 120,000 children in Afghanistan threatened with famine, illness and cold.

Philippe Heffinck of the United Nations children's fund UNICEF, said they are very concerned about the coming winter, which would leave a lot of people in the war-torn area vulnerable.

"If we don't assist, 120,000 children will die. It's a race against time," Heffinck told a news conference in Termez on Uzbekistan's border with Afghanistan.

Heffinck, who coordinates UNICEF aid via Uzbekistan, Turkmenistan and Tajikistan, said his agency was particularly concerned about shortages of food, basic drugs, warm clothes and drinking water.

He estimated there were up to two million vulnerable people in and around the northern Afghan city of Mazar-i-Sharif.

"There is also the quite daunting task of restarting education for girls interrupted four years ago," he added.

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The purist Taliban movement, which has lost most strategic strongholds to the Northern Alliance supported by U.S. air strikes, closed schools for girls in the areas it controlled.

Hurdles remain

Heffinck said that Central Asian countries play a major role in the emergency operation in Afghanistan.

"We always look at a maximum number of options. Uzbekistan is convenient to supply Mazar and the surrounding region, while Turkmenistan is probably more useful for Herat, and Tajikistan for northeastern Afghanistan," he said.

Turkmenistan had already received seven planeloads of UNICEF aid, while neighboring Uzbekistan got five and Tajikistan three, Heffinck said.

United Nations agencies started delivering aid by barge last week from Termez to the Afghan port of Hairaton, 18 km (11 miles) down the Amu Darya River.

However, bad weather and security concerns prevent them from working to their full potential.

Uzbek authorities halted all loading on Tuesday due to strong winds.

Authorities meanwhile cite security concerns in their refusal to open a vital bridge connecting Termez and Hairaton.

The opening of the kilometre-long (600-metre) Friendship Bridge could substantially boost aid deliveries by truck, as it can accommodate both railway and road traffic.

"When will the bridge be opened? It's up to the Uzbek government to respond to this," Heffinck said.

"I think the government of Uzbekistan has made enormous efforts to assist the relief operation. The bridge is just one element of the problem."

He said the relief operation was also hampered by difficulties in securing safe access to Afghan regions.

It remains unclear when international staff of relief agencies might safely resume work in northern Afghanistan.


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