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Taleban Accused of Holding Relief Convoys for Ransom - 2001-10-13

International aid agencies accuse the Taleban of holding for ransom relief convoys trying to get into Afghanistan. The agencies say Taleban border guards have tried to extort so-called "taxes" from them.

The aid agencies say some of their relief convoys are being held up at border crossings by guards who are making what they describe as "unacceptable demands."

The U.N.'s World Food Program is sending food into Afghanistan on an almost daily basis from Pakistan, Iran and other neighboring countries. WFP spokeswoman Christiane Berthiaume says some Taleban border guards have been demanding that the truck drivers hired by the agency pay a toll before they can proceed with their life-saving cargo.

She says WFP uses commercial trucks to deliver food to Afghanistan and they use a variety of roads to get there. "At one border crossing from Quetta to Herat, the border guards of the day requested that the trucks pay taxes," she says. "WFP has refused. This is not a general phenomenon. We are trying to seek a solution with the transport companies. WFP is exempt from taxes and its general position is not to pay them."

The aid agencies say they are racing against time to get food and other relief supplies into Afghanistan before the onset of winter in mid-November. That is when many roads will be cut off by heavy snows, making it impossible to get assistance to hundreds of thousands of needy people.

The agencies say their task is being made more difficult by the demands for payment. One of the agencies encountering the problem is the International Organization for Migration. Spokeswoman Niurka Pineiro says the agency has been trying for days to take 10,000 blankets into Afghanistan.

She says trucks carrying the blankets were stopped at the Islam Quala border with Iran. "They were held up at the border," she says. "We were trying to negotiate so we would not have to pay a levy. As they asked WFP, they asked us for money too and they were finally admitted without paying. But this took almost 10 days. So, we have asked the authorities to facilitate the convoys and to send customs officials or someone with authority to the borders, so these convoys can come in quickly without paying."

Now that the blankets finally have cleared customs, Ms. Pineiro says they will be distributed in a camp housing many thousands of internally-displaced people. She says the shipment is part of the agency's efforts to help people in Western and Northern Afghanistan get through the winter.