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Sunday, 14 October, 2001, 13:44 GMT 14:44 UK
Millions at risk in Afghan crisis
Afghans collecting US food packets in Northern Alliance territory
US food drops have helped some Afghan civilians
Afghanistan's crisis could turn into a humanitarian disaster on the same scale as Rwanda's in the mid-1990s, United Nations Human Rights Commissioner Mary Robinson has warned.

Speaking in a BBC interview, Mrs Robinson said up to seven million people were at risk in Afghanistan, and there was little time to act before winter set in.

Are we going to preside over deaths from starvation of hundreds of thousands - maybe millions - of people this winter because we didn't use the window of opportunity before winter closes?

Mary Robinson
A pause in the US bombing campaign would allow more food aid to get through, she said.

The UK International Development Secretary, Clare Short, has said there is a need to double the amount of aid currently getting into Afghanistan.

Aid agencies are having trouble carrying out food distributions as their main supplier, the World Food Programme (WFP), has largely stopped delivering food around Afghanistan.

Years of war

Mrs Robinson said the crisis was "almost like a Rwanda-style problem". Up to 800,000 Tutsis and moderate Hutus were massacred in Rwanda in 1994 and thousands of Hutus died in a subsequent exodus.

Afghan woman carrying UN supplied bread
UN bakeries have been supporting 350,000 Afghans

"There's been three years of famine in Afghanistan, there's been military conflict internally, now there's this military assault and I understand the reasons, but we have to have as a priority the civilian population and their need to be secured for the coming winter," Mrs Robinson told BBC television.

Mrs Short said 1,000 tonnes of aid was leaving for the Afghan capital Kabul daily, which was "a lot more than we had before".

"If we can carry on for five weeks, every day, at that sort of level, we're getting near the target to move enough food in," she said.

The WFP said on Saturday that its convoys of aid had reached Kabul and Kandahar, raising hopes that regular shipments could be made before the winter set in.

High death rate

But aid workers say the hungriest and poorest Afghans are dying of hunger and cold at rates far higher than the aid agencies consider to be crisis levels.

Among the estimated 10,000 refugees who fled Taleban attacks on their villages this summer to the high mountains in central Afghanistan, about four people are dying every day.

Afghan roads are still open.

Private traders are managing to truck food to even remote areas, although the poorest cannot afford to buy what is in the bazaars, the BBC's Kate Clark reports from Jebal-e-Seraj, in northern Afghanistan.

Some aid workers are raising the idea of the United States and the United Kingdom setting up safe air corridors to get food aid in and stop people dying.

The United States has accompanied its air strikes with food drops, but aid workers have questioned the effectiveness of such deliveries.

UNHCR's Panos Moumtzis
"The safety of relief workers is a major concern"
Unicef's Executive Director David Bull
saw the refugee camps last week when he joined an aid drop
See also:

01 Oct 01 | South Asia
How Afghans became aid dependent
30 Sep 01 | South Asia
In pictures: Afghanistan's refugees
27 Sep 01 | South Asia
Analysis: Afghanistan's future
19 Sep 01 | South Asia
On edge: Afghanistan's neighbours
27 Sep 01 | UK Politics
Blair calls for aid alliance
11 Jan 01 | South Asia
Afghan refugees' unending plight
22 Sep 01 | South Asia
Pakistan's fear of refugee flood
26 Sep 01 | South Asia
Afghans place hopes in UN
01 Oct 01 | World
Afghanistan's missing millions
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