The International Committee of the Red Cross is stepping up its humanitarian work in Afghanistan. The ICRC says its access to remote areas of the country has improved with a new government in place, and it now has better access to vulnerable and isolated groups in Afghanistan. And, this has given it a clearer picture of the conditions and most pressing needs.

Red Cross spokeswoman Antonella Notari says two provinces in central Afghanistan - Ghor and Bamiyan - are particularly at risk. She says people in these remote areas have been struck by decades of war and several years of drought. She says their living, sanitary, and health conditions are particularly poor.

Ms. Notari says it is essential that emergency relief be provided to destitute families in rural areas so they do not flee their homes in search of aid. "Why we are putting our efforts in trying to assist people in the rural areas is to try to avoid as much as possible an important movement of the population toward the urban centers," she explained. "That is, we would like if possible to help the people get through the winter in these remote areas, assist them in the spring so they can start planting again and avoid a massive displacement toward the camps or urban centers."

In the coming weeks, the Red Cross says, it hopes to distribute enough food aid in remote areas to help one-half million people survive the winter. Ms. Notari says the Red Cross also is assisting thousands of destitute residents and displaced people in the northern Afghan city of Mazar-e-Sharif and the capital, Kabul. She says the agency is providing shelter material, cooking equipment, and other relief to those whose homes were damaged or destroyed during the recent bombing campaign. Ms Notari says the agency is increasing rehabilitation programs for victims of landmines and other ordnance. Afghanistan, she notes, is one of the most heavily mine-infested countries in the world. "We are very worried. In particular regarding displaced persons who return home," she said. "Because when they left, of course, the front lines moved into their living areas, and there is always an increased danger when displaced persons return to their homes that they find their fields, their homes, their wells and their surroundings mined and that they then are victims to such incidents. So, we try to increase the mine awareness programs."

Ms. Notari says the ICRC also is providing Afghan medical facilities with crucial medical supplies and blankets, plastic sheeting, food, and fuel for generators. She says water distribution systems and hand pumps are being repaired and maintained by Red Cross engineers. This, she says, is making clean water available to a growing number of Afghans.