Aid for Afghans stranded on Uzbek side of newly opened bridge

Wednesday, December 12th 2001, 12:00 am
By: News On 6

TERMEZ, Uzbekistan (AP) _ Four train cars filled with U.N. wheat intended for needy Afghans were stranded on the Uzbek border Wednesday while aid officials scrambled to determine why the shipment wasn't allowed to cross a bridge to Afghanistan.

It was the latest hang-up in aid agencies' protracted efforts to persuade Uzbek authorities to open the only bridge over the Amu Darya River for regular traffic. The bridge, closed since 1997 when fierce fighting broke out on the Afghan side, could serve as a vital gateway for aid to northern Afghanistan.

Nearly 300 tons of wheat was supposed to accompany a group of United Nations and other international aid officials who traveled from the Uzbek port city of Termez to the northern Afghan city of Mazar-e-Sharif on Tuesday, on a journey to reopen offices closed since Sept. 11.

While the aid workers were allowed across, the train cars were stopped on the Uzbek side, said Petar Bojilov, the U.N. World Food Program coordinator overseeing the shipment.

``It's still waiting. We hope it will be able to cross any minute, but we just keep hoping,'' he said Wednesday.

He said logistical details were holding up Uzbek approval for the crossing, including last-minute requests for permission and repairs to dilapidated rails leading to warehouses on the Afghan side.

Uzbek border officials in Termez would not comment on the delay.

Since the Taliban militia was driven from northern Afghanistan last month, aid groups have been clamoring to open the bridge to send aid to more than 3 million people in the region facing severe hunger, cold and disease.

Uzbek authorities have stalled, citing security reasons _ apparently fearing an influx of Islamic militants into this tightly controlled, secular state.

Aid agencies withdrew from Afghanistan after the Sept. 11 terrorist attacks in the United States, blamed on terrorist suspect Osama bin Laden, who was being sheltered by the Taliban. U.S. air strikes and advances by Afghan northern alliance troops have since chased the Taliban from power.

The Soviet army built the Friendship Bridge for its war in Afghanistan, and used it when withdrawing in defeat from a war against U.S.-backed Afghan fighters 12 years ago.

Other aid has been sent over land to northern Afghanistan from the former Soviet republic of Kyrgyzstan. Nearly 5,000 tons of flour, wheat, and cooking oil has arrived by truck over the last month, often through heavy snow, relief officials said Wednesday.

Elsewhere, tents, ground sheets and blankets were sent by the Singapore Armed Forces for Afghan refugees at U.N. camps in Pakistan. The United Nations estimates 3.5 million Afghans live in refugee camps in Pakistan and Iran, and up to 200,000 in Tajikistan, while an estimated 1.5 million Afghans have been displaced within their own country.