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UNICEF to Rush Relief Supplies to Afghan Region

The U.N. Children's Fund (UNICEF) says it is rushing relief supplies into the Afghanistan region this weekend. The first of six planned humanitarian relief flights will go to Turkmenistan, on the northwest border of Afghanistan.

The first flight leaves from UNICEF's supply base in Copenhagen. It is carrying $130,000 worth of critical medical and shelter supplies, water purification tablets, and other relief items. UNICEF says the shipment includes enough basic medical supplies to help 100,000 people for three months.

Along with all other U.N. and international aid agencies, UNICEF pulled out of Afghanistan fearing possible strikes from the United States in retaliation against terrorist attacks. Thousands of Afghans are fleeing to neighboring countries.

The aid agencies are trying to cope with what they call "a humanitarian catastrophe". UNICEF is part of a huge relief operation, which is just getting under way.

Afghanistan is suffering from three years of drought and more than 20 years of war. UNICEF spokeswoman Wivina Belmonte says these problems are being compounded by the onset of winter. "This is a situation of great uncertainty. But, the one thing we can be sure of is that winter is looming and winter alone is devastating," she says. "Last year, children died because they froze to death. The rate of measles, malnutrition, famine, lack of water, improper health care, lack of care for mothers giving birth all that just got worse over the course of winter and no matter what else happens, we are bracing for that."

This first shipment of relief supplies is headed for Turkmenistan, one of four countries in Central Asia where UNICEF is positioning supplies to help large numbers of Afghans who seek refuge in other countries. All neighboring countries have closed their borders to keep out more Afghan refugees. But thousands reportedly are still crossing in remote areas where there are no checkpoints.

Ms. Belmonte says nearly one-third of Afghanistan's 22 million people are at risk and in need of international assistance. She says the most vulnerable are women and children. She says emergency aid valued at $750,000 already has been pre-positioned in Pakistan and Afghanistan.