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Tuesday, November 16, 1999 Published at 12:22 GMT

World: South Asia

Taleban want wheat ban lifted

The UN fears there could be severe shortages this winter

By Kate Clark in Kabul

In the last six weeks, the situation of Afghanistan's urban poor has become desperate.

The United Nations has estimated that if the price of bread doesn't fall this winter, as many half of Kabul's population will be unable to feed themselves properly.

Flour has doubled in price and the cost is still rising.

The Taleban say the situation will remain tough for the next month, but after that, it should stabilise.

A senior delegation is in Islamabad trying to hammer out a deal that would allow traders or the Afghan authorities themselves to import Pakistani wheat.

Pakistan introduced a ban after the military coup.

The Taleban says that Pakistan is the easiest country to import from. It is also their only ally in the region.

Agreement with Iran

But the Taleban have also been looking at diversifying their trade options; most significantly, they have reached an agreement with Iran to import flour and fuel and allow the passage of transit goods.

As the Taleban themselves have said, this represents a real improvement in relations with a country which supports the Afghan opposition.

A year ago, Iran and the Taleban were on the brink of war and the border has been closed ever since.

The Taleban have also struck a deal with Australia to import flour - if Islamabad allows it to be transported through Pakistani territory.

And 7,000 tonnes of wheat have already arrived from the central Asian state of Kazakhstan - destined for distribution to government employees.

Smuggling fears

The Taleban delegation in Pakistan is also hoping to get the ban on Afghan transit trade lifted.

As a landlocked country, Afghanistan is allowed to import goods via its neighbours without paying customs tax, but Pakistan has complained that transit goods are being smuggled back across the border to Pakistan, costing them millions of dollars in lost customs revenue.

It has impounded over 500 containers at Karachi and closed the port to further transit trade.

The Taleban want Karachi reopened and they say it is up to Pakistan to control its borders more effectively to prevent smuggling.

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