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Saturday, 22 September, 2001, 13:06 GMT 14:06 UK
Aid shortage adds to Afghan woes
Afghan refugee woman
Vast numbers are fleeing their homes in search of safety
The main supplier of food aid to Afghanistan is coming under strong pressure to resume its imports, as a humanitarian disaster looms.

The agency - the United Nations World Food Programme (WFP) - stopped wheat imports to the beleaguered country 10 days ago, citing security risks.

But other aid agencies say its given reasons for not resuming distribution - problems with transport, security and a lack of staff - are surmountable.

An emergency meeting in Islamabad on Friday between the WFP, aid agencies and donor countries was described by aid workers as stormy.

The WFP itself said the meeting was positive and said it would review its decision to stop the distribution of food stocks already in the country.

The United Nations says Afghanistan is facing the world's worst humanitarian crisis. It estimates that there are already 3.5 million refugees living in Iran and Pakistan. At least a million more are displaced inside Afghanistan.

Threat of US strike

The crisis has been exacerbated by the fear of a US military strike against the ruling Taleban, which has triggered an exodus from Afghanistan's cities.

An Afghan refugee in Pakistan
Food and water are dangerously scarce
The UN and non-governmental organisations have withdrawn their foreign staff from Afghanistan since the Taleban said last week that they could not guarantee their safety in the current crisis.

The UN and the Pakistani authorities are considering opening new refugee camps in Pakistan's semi-autonomous tribal areas on the border with Afghanistan to cope with any mass movement of people. Relief supplies have been moved to the region.

Thousands of Afghans are trying to flee to Pakistan as the US gears up for a military operation targeting Saudi-born militant Osama Bin Laden and his associates, blamed for the devastating 11 September attacks on New York and Washington.

Click here for map of Afghanistan

The onset of winter is compounding fears of a humanitarian catastrophe.

More supplies

The United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR) says plastic shelter materials and thousands of tents are being sent to Pakistan.

An Afghan Red Cross worker distributes help to needy farmers in Lashkara
The International Red Cross is still at work in Afghanistan
Japan has also announced an aid package to Pakistan worth $40m.

The International Federation of Red Cross and Red Crescent Societies says it is preparing for a humanitarian crisis, and has appealed for $5.5m to send food and medical supplies to the region.

It says it is preparing for 300,000 new refugees, including 120,000 in Pakistan.

The United Nations Children's Fund (Unicef) is sending medical supplies, shelter material and water purification tablets to Turkmenistan, on the north-west border of Afghanistan.

Fears of starvation

Similar airlifts to Pakistan, Uzbekistan and Tajikistan will follow.

The UK charity Oxfam says it has sent 1,500 tonnes of food aid to Afghanistan.

As the Oxfam shipment went out, spokesman Alex Renton said: "This food is urgently needed, but in the face of the level of need, this is a drop in the ocean."

Aid agencies are issuing urgent pleas that the US-led "war against terrorism" does not become a war against innocent civilians.

Thousands in peril

The UK-based Christian Aid charity says the diminished aid distribution could leave thousands dead before the spring.

The effects... could be infinitely more tragic and devastating than the worst that a wounded America may now throw at this long, long-suffering country

Chris Buckley, Christian Aid

Oxfam appealed for international borders to be opened to provide refuge to the thousands of fleeing Afghans.

The UNHCR estimates that at least 15,000 Afghans have crossed into Pakistan in the past week despite attempts to close the border.

According to the AFP news agency, the UNHCR mission in Iran is drawing up plans for the arrival of 300,000 Afghan refugees at the border.

The International Committee of the Red Cross (ICRC) is exploring alternative ways to move assistance into the western Afghan city of Herat and Mazar-i-Sharif in the north.

The ICRC is still moving aid in from Tajikistan and is looking to ship further assistance via Iran and Turkmenistan.

Meanwhile, the BBC's Kate Clark says there have been reports of rising crime, particularly in the capital Kabul.

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The BBC's Adam Mynott
"The World Food Program has stopped distribution"
Peter Kessler, UNHCR
"The situation in Afghanistan is becoming more precarious"
The BBC's John Simpson
"The entire place seems eerily deserted"
See also:

21 Sep 01 | South Asia
Afghan opposition flexes its muscles
11 Jan 01 | South Asia
Afghan refugees' unending plight
14 Sep 01 | South Asia
Aid agencies warn of Afghan crisis
11 Sep 01 | South Asia
Who is Osama Bin Laden?
18 Sep 01 | South Asia
Profile: Mullah Mohammed Omar
18 Sep 01 | Country profiles
Country profile: Afghanistan
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