The International Federation of Red Cross and Red Crescent Societies is appealing for nearly $700,000 to assist 17,500 victims of severe snowfalls and bitterly cold weather in the Afghan capital, Kabul. This cold snap also is affecting tens of thousands of families in northern and western Afghanistan.

International aid agencies report poor people in rural areas are at particular risk from the bitterly cold weather. They say it is difficult, often impossible, to reach people in remote mountainous areas. They say many villages are completely cut off because of the snow.

Agencies such as the International Organization for Migration are distributing winter supplies to thousands of needy families in northern and western Afghanistan. The agency reports hundreds of people are dying from cold-related illnesses.

The Geneva-based Red Cross Federation is supporting the Afghan Red Crescent in its efforts to assist thousands of destitute people in Kabul. A spokesman, Roy Probert, says at least 260 people there have perished in the extreme cold weather.

"The majority of the dead are children under the age of five and the elderly," he said. "We have seen a lot of cases of respiratory infections, pneumonia. There are a lot of cases of whooping cough as well amongst children. And, obviously, hypothermia has been a big cause of death amongst the elderly. So, we are very very concerned about caring for the very weak, the children, pregnant mothers and the elderly."

Mr. Probert says Kabul has thousands of homeless people who are living in buildings that have been damaged or destroyed during fighting with the Taleban. He says these places do not have any heating or other services.

"Because of the political changes that have been going on in Afghanistan in recent years, there have been a lot of people returning from other countries," he said. "The refugees that left the country during the war have been returning. There are other people who have been displaced for other reasons. We estimate there are some 17,500 displaced or returning to Kabul living in pretty poor conditions and they are extremely vulnerable."

The Red Cross spokesman says the Afghan government is gradually relocating these vulnerable people to places that can better protect them from the cold weather. He says the greatest needs are for shelter and food, as well as improving sanitation facilities and hygiene.