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Uzbek Aid Bridge in Poor Condition, Slowing Aid to N. Afghans - 2001-12-14

U.N. officials say the poor condition of a bridge linking Uzbekistan and Afghanistan has dealt a severe blow to efforts to get food into northern Afghanistan.

U.N. officials had high hopes for the Friendship Bridge. The bridge linking Uzbekistan and Afghanistan re-opened last Sunday after being closed for several years, but it is in such poor condition that it can no longer carry food and other supplies.

"We did move some food by train on the Friendship Bridge," explained the World Food Program's Christiane Bertiaume. But it has been difficult because this bridge has been closed for four years and it needs repairs. It's not working well and the worst part is on the Afghan side."

Ms. Bertiaume says the WFP is resorting to using barges and trucks to get aid into Afghanistan. But these methods also have their dangers. A WFP driver was recently killed when his truck, filled with supplies, skidded off an icy bridge in northeastern Afghanistan.

And then there is the snow. WFP says it is racing against time to bring food to remote parts of the country before winter snows make food deliveries impossible.

Meanwhile, the U.N. refugee agency reports that, with the Taleban routed, more and more Afghan refugees are returning home - over 17,000 are estimated to have gone home this week. But Ron Redman of the refugee agency warns that coming home can still be dangerous. "We are still cautioning Afghans not to rush back, nor should countries in the region rush the more than 3.5 million refugees home," he said, "especially with winter upon us. And also the security situation in many parts of Afghanistan remains fragile."

Another agency, the International Organization for Migration, says it is helping internally displaced Afghans return to their villages in the Shamali Plain north of Kabul. But agency spokeswoman Niurka Pineiro says the process is going slowly because the area is full of landmines. "The IDPs are asking to be taken home quicker, but we have to wait for the U.N. demining agency to identify which villages are safe because there is a lot of unexploded ordnance in that area," she said.

The International Organization for Migration says the area the villagers are returning to was for several years the frontline between the Northern Alliance and Taleban and demining efforts could take just as long.