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UN: Relief Agencies Concerned About Aid Distribution In Afghanistan

So far, there has been no major flow of refugees in response to the U.S.-led bombing campaign of Taliban and suspected terrorist targets in Afghanistan. But UN officials also say they do not have much information on the condition of millions of Afghans inside the country. With aid donations pouring in, they say their main concern is getting access to a massive population in need.

United Nations, 10 October 2001 (RFE/RL) -- United Nations officials report an encouraging response to their emergency aid appeal for Afghan civilians, with more than $700 million in assistance now pledged. But with access to Taliban-ruled areas of Afghanistan increasingly difficult, concern is mounting over how to get relief supplies to millions of Afghans inside the country.

Officials across the wide range of UN aid agencies said yesterday that there has been no major rise in refugees since the U.S.-led air raids began in Afghanistan on 7 October.

UN agencies have continued to build up emergency supplies such as tents, blankets, and food at border areas capable of handling tens of thousands of refugees. Two neighboring countries that already host millions of Afghan refugees -- Iran and Pakistan -- have closed their borders. But UN officials say they are cooperating in setting up refugee relief camps at their borders to provide food, shelter, and medical care.

The UN's deputy emergency relief coordinator, Carolyn McAskie, told reporters yesterday that Pakistan has identified 32 sites around Northwest Province and another five in Baluchistan where refugees can go. She said Iran has plans to set up more than 10 refugee centers, including five inside the Afghan border.

But McAskie said concern is growing about those people inside Afghanistan who are too poor or enfeebled to flee: "Even our largest numbers on a worst-case scenario for refugee outflow still imply 5 to 6 million people requiring food inside the country through the winter."

The Afghan winter comes early -- it is expected in four weeks in some places -- and will be especially harsh following a continued drought in most parts of the country. There are about 700 local Afghan staff of the United Nations distributing food but no international relief staff inside the country. Current food supplies, McAskie says, will last three to four weeks.

The United Nations, which has overcome numerous obstacles to distribute aid to Afghans in recent years, is concerned now about sustaining shipments into the country now that Taliban positions have become prime targets in Washington's counter-terrorism campaign.

The events of this week have heightened concerns about the safety of UN staff in the area. U.S. military strikes on 8 October were reported to have killed four employees of an Afghan non-governmental organization -- Afghan Technical Consultants -- contracted to carry out de-mining work for the UN.

Also on 8 October, crowds in the Pakistani border city of Quetta set fire to the local office of the United Nations Children's Fund (UNICEF).

Independently of the UN, U.S. military cargo planes are dropping emergency food supplies throughout the country. But U.S. Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld has acknowledged that the best way to deliver food is from the ground.

UN Secretary-General Kofi Annan said after a Security Council briefing on the humanitarian situation that the U.S. air strikes have complicated efforts to bring supplies in over land: "We are continuing our attempts to get trucks in but it is much more difficult because, as you can understand, in this situation not many truck drivers want to drive in there."

Even before the launch of the U.S.-led military reprisals, Afghan civilians were suffering from the world's worst humanitarian crisis. The devastating combination of drought and civil war had caused hundreds of thousands of Afghans this year to become displaced or flee the country.

The mass movements of Afghan civilians are further complicated by the presence of mines, many of them planted during the Soviet occupation. The mines cover approximately 100 square kilometers of territory, according to Martin Barber, head of the UN mine action service.

Barber told a news conference yesterday that in 12 years of work, the UN mine action program had cleared about 200 square kilometers of mines. But he said the program had slowed down considerably in recent months because of a shortage of funds. He expressed the hope that the new donor pledges will provide a boost to mine-clearing efforts.

In the short term, Barber expressed concern that previously remote areas not yet cleared of mines will pose an added threat to Afghanistan's displaced people: "Any unplanned population movement along routes that are not marked does, of course, add to the risk of individuals crossing old and unmarked minefields and becoming killed or injured in those minefields."

Barber said his office has received reports of Afghans leaving major cities for the countryside, placing them at greater risk of approaching unmarked border points where minefields still exist.

The United Nations has long been involved in efforts to help broker a political settlement in a country marred by 20 years of civil war. With the potential weakening of the Taliban and the involvement of Afghanistan's neighbors in the antiterrorism campaign, there is new hope of reinvigorating the peace process.

Annan last week named Lakhdar Brahimi, a highly respected diplomat, as his special envoy for all Afghan affairs, humanitarian and political. He said yesterday it was too soon to outline Brahimi's first course of action but he repeated the UN's desire to help the country set up a broad-based, multiethnic, representative government.

Annan also said Afghanistan's Central Asian neighbors will need to play a more constructive role in creating a workable solution for the country's future government: "We would also need the support and cooperation of the regional and neighboring governments who have not always pulled together and have worked in opposite directions."

Afghanistan's neighbors had all played a role in the UN-sponsored "Six-plus-Two" initiative which sought to engage the region in a solution to the intractable conflict pitting the Northern Alliance opposition against the ruling Taliban.

But the project stalled as Iran and Russia -- two members of the initiative -- became active supporters of the Northern Alliance. And Pakistan, another "Six-plus-Two" member, was continuing to support the Taliban militarily. Pakistan is the only remaining country in the world to recognize the legitimacy of the Taliban government.