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Taliban Urge US to Lift Curbs and Unfreeze Funds to Help Quake-Hit Afghanistan

Afghan children sit among their salvaged belongings after an earthquake in Gayan village, in Paktika province, Afghanistan, Friday June 24, 2022.

The Taliban renewed their call Saturday for the United States to unfreeze Afghanistan’s foreign funds and lift financial sanctions to help the war-torn country deal with its deadliest earthquake in more than two decades.

The United Nations said humanitarian organizations, in coordination with Taliban authorities, are continuing to provide aid to families in Paktika and Khost, the two southeastern Afghan provinces hardest hit by Wednesday’s 5.9 magnitude earthquake.

“There are, however, unconfirmed reports that between 700 and 800 families are living in the open across three of the six worst-affected districts,” said a U.N. statement Saturday.

“Families living in non-damaged and partially damaged buildings have also reportedly resorted to living out in the open out of fear that there may be further tremors,” the statement added.

The quake killed 1,150 people, injured about 1,600 and destroyed nearly 3,000 homes, with hundreds more partially damaged, according to Taliban officials. The destruction hit some of the poorest and most remote mountainous Afghan areas near the Pakistan border which lacks the infrastructure to withstand calamities of this scale. At least 121 children were among those killed and the toll is likely to increase, according to the U.N. children’s fund UNICEF.

Afghan authorities have called off the search for survivors, and they were struggling to deliver critically needed aid due to capacity challenges.

“In these testing times, we call on the United States to release Afghanistan's frozen assets and lift sanctions on Afghan banks so that aid agencies could easily deliver assistance to Afghanistan,” Taliban Foreign Minister Amir Khan Muttaqi said Saturday, while speaking to reporters in the capital, Kabul.

U.S. President Joe Biden issued an executive order in February that was aimed at freeing up half the $7 billion in frozen Afghan central bank assets on U.S. soil. The money would be used to benefit the Afghan people while the rest would be held to possibly satisfy terrorism-related lawsuits against the Taliban.

“We are urgently working to address complicated questions about the use of these funds to ensure they benefit the people of Afghanistan and not the Taliban,” White House Press Secretary Karine Jean-Pierre told reporters Saturday.

But she reiterated the Biden administration was not waiting and was working through international partners to urgently get aid to the Afghan people.

The UNICEF representative in the country, Mohamed Ayoya, visited one of the worst-hit districts in Paktika and described the situation on Twitter.

“I saw despair, desolation, suffering, vulnerability but also resilience & acts of solidarity from national businessmen, international organizations & authorities,” Ayoya wrote.

More foreign aid arrives

Meanwhile, Afghan officials said cargo planes from neighboring Pakistan, Iran, Uzbekistan, and the gulf state of Qatar, carrying relief supplies for survivors, landed at the Khost airport.

Mansoor Ahmad Khan, the Pakistani ambassador in Kabul, said in a Twitter post that his country had also stationed “19 paramedics/doctors…at Khost Airport from 23 June with 3 ambulances & mobile hospital to treat injured & refer serious to hospitals in Pakistan.”

China said it would provide humanitarian assistance worth $7.5 million to Afghanistan, including tents, towels, beds and other supplies urgently needed in quake-devastated areas.

Chinese Foreign Ministry spokesman Wang Wenbin said Saturday the first batch of supplies was scheduled to depart for the crisis-hit neighbor by charter flights Monday.

“In the next few days, China will coordinate closely with the Afghan interim government to ensure the rapid delivery of the relief supplies into the hands of the people in need,” Wenbin said.

Britain has also pledged to provide $3 million for immediate life-saving support to Afghans affected by the devastating earthquake.

The international community has not yet recognized the Taliban’s interim government since the Islamist insurgent group took over Afghanistan last August, citing concerns over human rights and terrorism.

The Taliban takeover came as U.S. and NATO partners withdrew their final troops, ending almost two decades of foreign military intervention in the South Asian nation.

Washington and other Western countries have since halted financial assistance to largely aid-dependent Afghanistan, seized its foreign assets worth more than $9 billion, mostly held by the U.S, and isolated the Afghan banking system.

The actions and long-running terrorism-related sanctions on senior Taliban leaders have thrown cash-strapped Afghanistan into a severe economic crisis, worsening an already bad humanitarian crisis blamed on years of war and persistent drought.

The United Nations estimates that 97% of Afghanistan’s 40 million people will be living below the poverty line this year.

U.S. Acting Political Counselor Trina Saha told a U.N. Security Council meeting Thursday that the Afghan earthquake was a devastating blow to a population that is already suffering gravely.

“We call for urgent donor assistance to relief efforts,” she said. Saha added that “the earthquake highlights the vulnerability of the Afghan people and underscores the dire need for continued humanitarian assistance."