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UN begins sending aid by barge to Afghanistan


TERMEZ, Uzbekistan (AP) _ The United Nations sent its first barge carrying humanitarian aid to Afghanistan on Wednesday, a shipment that could open up a major new corridor of supplies to hungry Afghan civilians.

U.N. officials said that if the first barge is able to deliver its 55 tons of supplies successfully, they could start sending 17,600 tons of aid a month from Uzbekistan into northern Afghanistan, now mostly in the hands of anti-Taliban opposition.

The barge sailed from the Uzbek port of Termez to the Afghan port of Hairaton, a distance of 11 miles. It was carrying 55 tons of wheat flour, 10,000 winter coats, 2,000 blankets, 1,333 pairs of boots and 10,000 collapsible water containers.

By mid-afternoon, the barge had docked successfully in Hairaton and was being unloaded, Michael Huggins of the U.N. World Food Program said.

``The river crossing is the first of what is hoped will become a major humanitarian corridor into northern Afghanistan, where there are an estimated 3 million hungry people,'' the United Nations said in a press release.

``The aid will target the most vulnerable and needy people of northern Afghanistan,''' Richard Conroy, U.N. chief in Uzbekistan, said in a statement.

U.N. officials had delayed the shipment for about a week, due to security concerns, and the first barge carried just a quarter of the normal planned load of 220 tons.

The port of Hairaton was captured by the northern alliance on Nov. 8, the same day that the biggest city in northern Afghanistan, Mazar-e-Sharif, fell to the anti-Taliban opposition. There have been reports of looting and fighting in the city and surrounding areas.

U.N. officials said supplies from the barge would be put in a warehouse in Hairaton. It was unclear when the aid would be moved inland.

The World Food Program has 1,210 tons of food in Termez and 12,100 tons of supplies in neighboring Kazakstan and Tajikistan en route to the port.
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