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UN Officials Warn of Humanitarian Catastrophy in Afghanistan - 2001-09-28

Senior U.N. officials warn that Afghanistan's grim humanitarian situation could become catastrophic if aid agencies are unable to get food, shelter and other critically needed relief supplies into the country by mid-November.

The United Nations notes this recent crisis is only the latest in a long series of catastrophes to face Afghanistan. It says the war, repressive regimes and the drought have eroded peoples' ability to cope. As a result, it says famine is virtually inevitable in parts of the country.

Senior U.N. humanitarian official, Ross Mountain says the Afghan people are very resilient. But, he says international staff is unable to bring food and other relief supplies into Afghanistan. He says he fears this will compound the Afghan peoples' suffering. "This is a crisis that could become absolutely dramatic, it could become absolutely horrific if we are unable to get the support in to those who need it," he says.

U.N. officials say all options are being looked at, such as airdrops of food and cross-border deliveries of relief supplies.

Michael Sackett is the newly appointed U.N. Regional Humanitarian Coordinator on the Afghanistan crisis based in Islamabad. He says winters are very harsh in Afghanistan. And aid agencies only have a limited period in which to get shelter set up and food supplies distributed. He says the United Nations is developing a number of creative responses to the crisis. "The other thing we are very actively engaged in now is trying to figure out ways in which cross-border operations can be mounted into the relatively calmer parts of Afghanistan," he says. "It does vary from region to region. We believe there are opportunities to engage in crossborder operations."

In the coming days, the United Nations is planning to mount its first cross-border operation. Mr. Sackett says food will be sent from Turkmenistan and Tajikistan into the northern parts of Afghanistan, which are controlled by the opposition Northern Alliance, and to Herat, which is controlled by the Taleban. He says both parties are cooperating with this operation.

Mr. Sackett says normal deliveries of supplies have not been able to go ahead since foreign aid workers were withdrawn from Afghanistan. He says international staff must be on the ground to guarantee that relief items go to the people who need it most. "Food is always a sensitive and attractive relief item and it is the one that we certainly have to be the most careful about," he says. "And, the usual practice is to have monitors on the ground who ensure that relief items get to the people for whom they are intended." Mr. Sackett says the United Nations can count on the local Afghan staff working in the north and in Herat to make sure the food aid is properly distributed.