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Afghanistan: Aid Agencies Ask For Temporary Bombing Pause

International aid agencies have warned that millions of Afghans face famine because there are not enough food supplies for the approaching winter. They have asked for a temporary stop to the U.S.-led attacks on Afghanistan to allow relief supplies into the country.

Islamabad, 18 October 2001 (RFE/RL) -- Aid agencies say 400,000 Afghans are already suffering acute food shortages because of drought, failed harvests, and the conflict in their country. Two million others do not have enough food to last through the winter.

The UN has warned that up to 7.5 million Afghans could face famine if food stocks are not replenished soon.

Nick Roseveare, a spokesman for the British relief organization Oxfam, which has worked for three years in Afghanistan, says hundreds of thousands of Afghans already have been reduced to living off wild vegetation and killing what he called "essential" livestock. Those are animals that supply milk or are needed for breeding and whose slaughter only leads to more shortages.

He appealed to the U.S. and Britain to temporarily halt their air campaign against the Taliban government and suspected terrorist bases of Osama bin Laden to allow supplies to be trucked in.

Roseveare says only a month remains before winter: "Two million people do not have enough food aid to last the winter, and of those, half a million people will be cut off by snow in mid-November. United Nations food stocks within Afghanistan are now down to just two weeks' supply, 9,000 tons, and millions of people are on the move. We simply do not know the scale of their need. We do not know how many people may die if military action on all sides is not suspended and the aid effort assured. If nothing changes, and this is the only way a step-change (significant change) can be achieved, there may be huge loss of life and unspeakable suffering during this winter."

Dominic Nutt, spokesman for the Christian Aid relief organization, said he was in Afghanistan for five weeks in August and September and had visited many villages where inhabitants were dying of starvation: "That was when food aid was coming in. I saw fresh graves being dug every day. Often these graves were small graves for little children, the most weak and the most vulnerable people. The situation now, according to our contacts on the ground, is getting worse day by day. People are down, in some areas, to their last week's worth of food. Many of the villages I saw will be cut off in a few weeks' time. People were dying then [when I was there]; people will be dying now. But if the snows come there will be no escape for those people, and I fear that when I go back, I will be visiting ghost villages."

Oxfam's Roseveare said another reason for asking for a pause in air attacks was because of the accidental hits by the U.S. and Britain against UN and Red Cross facilities in the Afghan capital, Kabul, and the center of Taliban administration, Kandahar. The hits, he said, had frightened many of those involved in the deliveries.

One of the first air raids after the U.S.-led strikes started 7 October hit a UN facility that removes landmines left over from more than 20 years of war. Four workers were killed. This week, there were accidental strikes against a World Food Program warehouse and another belonging to the International Committee of the Red Cross.

The Taliban has accused the U.S. and Britain of deliberately targeting the facilities, something the allies deny. Roseveare says the incidents have made food transporters fearful of continuing their work: "Whether it hit an intended or unintended target is immaterial. The fact is that the effect of the conflict and of missiles jeopardizing humanitarian operations is presenting a very significant obstacle for humanitarian operations in Afghanistan because, naturally, the laborers who load trucks, the drivers who drive them, and the owners of the trucks are reluctant to take the kind of risks that are necessary in a war zone."

Nutt of Christian Aid says many relief agency offices and warehouses are close to Taliban military sites and there are fears that more will be hit by allied air strikes: "The situation is unstable. We have a compound up in the mountains, a Christian Aid compound. It's next door to a Taliban barracks with antiaircraft guns on top. Are we going to see our compound destroyed? This is the situation that Oxfam and Christian Aid are facing."

Sikander Ali, a spokesman for the British-based Islamic Relief organization, says his group has depots in Kabul and Kandahar and works mostly with rural populations, such as in the predominantly desert area of the country's Helmand province. He says that in some villages there is now no food after stockpiles ran out.

Ali says people fearing famine are leaving their homes and heading to where they hope they can find food. The United Nations has predicted more than a million could try to find relief in neighboring Pakistan.

Pakistan has for weeks kept its border with Afghanistan sealed. The Pakistan government says it wants aid provided to Afghans in Afghanistan or in refugee camps on the Afghan side of the border. But a UN spokesman said this week that thousands of refugees are still managing to flow into Pakistan and that the physical condition of new arrivals is "visibly deteriorating."

Pakistan is already home to more than 2 million Afghan refugees who fled their country during the Soviet occupation in the 1980s and have remained as a civil war has continued. The refugees have put an enormous strain on Pakistan's economy and are blamed for a range of problems, including crime and terrorist disturbances.

The UN says sufficient food is getting into Afghanistan to prevent an immediate catastrophe. The UN's World Food Program says it has 56,000 tons of wheat in Afghanistan. The British minister for aid, now visiting Pakistan, has also said there are enough supplies reaching Afghanistan.

But Oxfam and other non-governmental aid organizations that have been distributing food from the World Food Program's warehouses say that flows have stopped and that they are unable to access stocks.

On 16 October, Taliban troops seized half the World Food Program's stocks from warehouses in Kabul and Kandahar.

Even before the present crisis began, the UN, its relief agencies, and other humanitarian aid organizations faced severe restrictions by the Taliban. On numerous occasions, aid workers were intimidated, beaten up, or ordered to leave the country.

Western diplomats argue that provisions of food and medical services actually help the Taliban by allowing the militia to pour all of its resources into the military.

Diplomats say a temporary halt in the military campaign would only help the Taliban. But Oxfam spokesman Roseveare disagrees: "There are many arguments that may be put by many people why there should be no humanitarian pause, and only one argument why there should be: which is quite simply to relieve suffering and save innocent lives this winter."

Roseveare says aid agencies have not been in direct contact with the Taliban, which levies high taxes on the humanitarian aid it allows into the country. He admits they did not know if the Taliban would cooperate with efforts to bring more food into the country and allow agencies to distribute it.