The United Nations and Uzbekistan hailed as a breakthrough an agreement reached yesterday that will allow for significant amounts of humanitarian aid to be delivered inside Afghanistan through the Uzbekistan's border city of Termez.
United Nations, 26 October 2001 (RFE/RL) -- Kenzo Oshima, the United Nations' emergency relief coordinator, announced yesterday that Uzbekistan has agreed to allow the UN to move humanitarian aid across its border into northern Afghanistan.
Speaking to reporters in the Uzbek capital, Tashkent, Oshima said Uzbekistan will allow the UN to use a river port in the southern city of Termez and barges to move aid to Afghanistan. Uzbekistan has also opened the Termez airport to humanitarian agencies to allow the stockpile of humanitarian items for shipment south.
There is not yet an agreement, however, to allow trucks to cross the bridge spanning the Amydarya River border or to allow air drops of relief supplies. Oshima says details of the agreement still have to be worked out, including when aid shipments can begin.
Fred Eckhard, the spokesman for UN Secretary-General Kofi Annan, says the agreement with Uzbekistan offers what he calls "tremendous potential" for UN relief efforts inside Afghanistan.
"The government of Uzbekistan has agreed to allow the United Nations, for the first time since 1998, to use the Termez river port and barges to move humanitarian goods to the northern provinces of Afghanistan. Some of the barges can carry up to 1,000 metric tons of food, and they offer tremendous potential for getting food into the northern part of Afghanistan."
Oshima stressed in Tashkent that it is in the best interests of Afghanistan's neighbors to do everything they can to facilitate the work of the UN in what he called "this terrible vulnerability -- this famine, this crisis." Oshima is expected to travel soon to Turkmenistan and Tajikistan to further discuss the humanitarian situation.
Meanwhile, the UN is warning that the deepening food crisis in Afghanistan is threatening the country's people with mass starvation. That's according to a special report released yesterday by the United Nations Food and Agriculture Organization (FAO).
The report warns that the food supply situation in countries bordering Afghanistan is also seriously undermined by a prolonged dry spell. The report says food production in Pakistan, Iran, Tajikistan, Uzbekistan, and Turkmenistan has suffered a significant reduction this year due to the serious drought. In the past, the report says, millions of Afghans have met part of their food needs with supplies from those nations.
Commenting on current food-delivery efforts in Afghanistan, Eckhard -- the UN spokesman -- says they are being hampered by the military activities near the capital, Kabul.
"The World Food Program said it had began distribution of 500 metric tons of food for the internally displaced people in Kabul. However, a series of explosions very close to the distribution site forced a temporary hold in that distribution. Today [25 October], the distribution restarted and continued throughout the day, and 500 metric tons are enough to feed 60,000 people for one month."
While the majority of Afghanistan's 24 million citizens are facing severe food shortages, the FAO says 7.5 million Afghans -- including 1.5 million displaced people -- are in desperate need of food aid to survive. The FAO says it plans to deliver 52,000 tons of food aid per month to feed those most in need.
The UN agency says transport and distribution problems are hampering the delivery of aid, including the airlifting of some supplies before winter sets in around mid-November. The current adverse situation coincides with the planting season for wheat, which accounts for 80 percent of the country's total cereal production. The FAO report says the forecast for cereal production to meet next year's needs in country is equally bleak.
The FAO report notes the current U.S.-led military campaign against the Taliban is only making a bad situation worse. Even before the air attacks, the FAO says, Afghanistan was "gripped by a grave food crisis following three consecutive years of drought and intensifying economic problems due to the continuing civil conflict."
Meanwhile, Ruud Lubbers, the UN High Commissioner for Refugees, is due to leave today for a one-week mission to Pakistan and Iran. It is his second trip to the region in six months. The UN says Lubbers hopes to get a first-hand look at the UNHCR's current state of readiness and preparations for a possible large-scale influx of Afghan refugees.
In Tehran yesterday, the UNHCR said more than 2,000 Afghan refugees had arrived in the previous day at Afghanistan's border with Iran.
Eckhard says refugees are relating horrible stories about their experiences on their way out of Afghanistan: "In one group, a young girl was maimed by a mine explosion while walking with her family over the mountains. In another group, a woman gave birth on the way, but the baby did not survive."
The UNHCR says interviews with newly arrived Afghan refugees in Pakistan indicate that Afghans fear getting caught up in the U.S.-led bombing campaign against the Taliban and terrorist targets inside the country. They say they also fear ending up in the middle of a possible land battle between the Taliban and its opponents.
Refugees also continue to talk about the breakdown of law and order inside Afghanistan. The UNHCR says refugees from Afghan cities are particularly concerned about the danger of interfactional fighting in residential areas.