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United Nations ready to ship hundreds of tons of food to Afghanistan


TERMEZ, Uzbekistan (AP) _ Dock workers loaded thousands of sacks of flour onto river barges Monday, as the United Nations prepared to ship aid to the hundreds of thousands of displaced people in northern Afghanistan.

At Termez port, huge blue and red cranes lifted wooden pallets piled six deep with 110-pound sacks of wheat flour from the European Union and Germany and placed them on waiting barges.

Two barges, being loaded with some 200 tons of flour each in preparation to cross the Amu Darya river, which forms the border between Uzbekistan and Afghanistan, and sail about 12 miles downstream to the Afghan port of Hairaton.

The shipments were waiting for confirmation from a U.N. team in northern Afghanistan that the area's roads and warehouses are secure. Officials said the barges could move as soon as Tuesday _ though Wednesday appeared more likely since there was no word yet from the U.N. team.

If the shipments are successful, officials plan to send 16,000 tons of aid for Afghan civilians through Uzbekistan every month; one ton can feed an estimated 60 people for a month.

``The World Food Program is gearing up for a major humanitarian effort,'' said Michael Huggins of the WFP. ``There is an urgent need for food in Afghanistan.''

A 22-truck convoy carrying 330 tons of food was hit by shrapnel this weekend in Bamyan province northwest of Kabul, Huggins said. There were no casualties in the convoy, which was not marked as U.N. vehicles, but 80 percent of their cargo was destroyed, Huggins said.

He declined to give specifics about the incident, saying only that the shrapnel was ``aerial.''

UNICEF also hopes to ship milk, biscuits, winter coats and school supplies on the barges. It is not clear if a third barge loaded with those supplies will sail with the WFP's aid.

Uzbek soldiers carrying sniper rifles and assault rifles with grenade launchers attached stood guard at the port Monday. Some soldiers with binoculars scanned the flat plains of Afghanistan, just a few hundred feet across the brown muddy waters of the Amu Darya.

Once the aid arrives in the north, Afghan U.N. workers would unload the barges and take the aid to distribution points near the city of Mazar-e-Sharif, which was captured from the Taliban last week.

The aid is being sent by barge because the bridge across the Amu Darya has been closed since 1997, when the Taliban took control of most of Afghanistan.

``If there are no problems, it will be a continuous corridor until the Friendship Bridge opens,'' Huggins said.

Uzbek officials have given no indication as to when they would allow the bridge to open.

The WFP already has 1,100 tons of food in Termez and 11,000 tons of supplies in neighboring Kazakstan and Tajikistan on its way to the port.
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