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Food aid is on its way again into Afghanistan

SHARE Food aid is on its way again into Afghanistan

ISLAMABAD, Pakistan — U.N. agencies resumed aid shipments into drought-ravaged Afghanistan Saturday for the first time since Sept. 11 in a hasty effort to feed an estimated 320,000 people who are expected to run out of food by the end of this week.

The World Food Program began trucking 200 tons of wheat from Pakistan to the Afghan capital, Kabul, from where it is supposed to be shipped to parts of the country most affected by the food crisis.

The U.N. Children's Fund sent a second shipment, containing 200 tons of food and warm clothing for children living in opposition-controlled areas in the north of the country. The cargo will be transported first by trucks, then by four-wheel-drive vehicles and finally by a train of 4,000 donkeys over the Hindu Kush mountain range.

U.N. officials also are making preparations to deal with as many as 1.5 million refugees who may seek to enter neighboring countries in the event of a U.S. military strike on Afghanistan. But with the prospect of an attack appearing less imminent, and relatively few refugees massing at Afghanistan's borders, several aid workers said that providing humanitarian assistance inside Afghanistan became an urgent priority to prevent mass starvation.

Meanwhile, the Pakistani government Saturday shut down seven offices belonging to the Harakat ul-Mujahedin, or Movement of the Holy Warriors, one of the largest militant organizations fighting Indian soldiers in the disputed Kashmir region. The group, which has strong ties to Afghanistan, was one of 27 organizations and individuals suspected of funding terrorists whose U.S. assets were ordered frozen by President Bush last week. The move came a day after the United Nations passed a resolution ordering member states to crack down on terror groups.

Many Harakat members are believed to be fighting alongside Afghanistan's ruling Taliban militia against the opposition guerrillas in Afghanistan's north.

In Kabul, the trial of eight foreign aid workers accused of spreading Christianity in Afghanistan, which was scheduled to resume today, was postponed until Sunday to give their attorney more time to prepare their defense, officials said.

Afghan authorities also announced that they had arrested a British journalist who sneaked into Afghanistan wearing a burqa, or head-to-toe covering. Yvonne Ridley, 43, a reporter for the Sunday Express of London, was arrested Friday on espionage charges in eastern Afghanistan, the official Taliban news service said.

In Rome, a group of Afghan political and military leaders met with the country's former king, Mohammed Zahir Shah, to talk about forming a government of national unity if the Taliban is overthrown. Advisers to the 86-year-old ex-monarch were scheduled to hold talks this weekend with a delegation from the Northern Alliance.

In Afghanistan, about 4 million people depend on food assistance, and an additional 4 million will require supplemental food this winter, according to WFP officials. The United Nations, which is seeking $584 million to fund humanitarian assistance programs in Afghanistan for the next six months, warned that the land-locked nation had plunged into a crisis of "stunning proportions."

The WFP stopped food shipments to Afghanistan after the attacks on Washington and New York because the Taliban failed to provide security guarantees for humanitarian workers. U.N. offices in the cities of Kandahar and Mazar-e-Sharif have been looted in recent days, a U.N. spokeswoman said.

Although the WFP has more than 10 tons of food already in Afghanistan, delivering those supplies has been hindered since the attacks by a lack of trucks-they have been commandeered to transport people out of cities in anticipation of U.S. military strikes-and because the Taliban has ejected foreign aid workers. Afghans working for the U.N. and other aid agencies have been allowed to stay on the job, but many have abandoned their duties and joined the exodus from cities, officials said.

"In some locations, very few to no local staff are reporting to work," said Stephanie Bunker, a spokeswoman for the U.N. relief operation in Afghanistan.

The Taliban also have seized U.N. communications equipment, preventing foreign U.N. specialists, who have been evacuated to Pakistan, from providing directions to and receiving updates from Afghan staff. "It's hard to find out just what's going on there," she said.

The transportation, labor, communications and security problems forced the WFP to scale back its program and focus on feeding only 1 million people.

Without new food shipments, officials said that 320,000 people in the northern provinces of Faryab and Balkh, which have been hit hardest by four years of drought, will exhaust their food supplies by week's end. The WFP estimated that another 1.6 million Afghans in northern provinces will run out of food by December.

Officials said some Afghans have resorted to eating grass, locusts and cattle feed. "It's a very grim situation," Bunker said. "It's hard to think of how things could get worse."