Three leading British aid agencies called yesterday for an immediate pause to all hostilities in Afghanistan, including western bombing, so humanitarian supplies could be delivered urgently. Winter sets in next month.
Oxfam International, Christian Aid and the Birmingham-based charity Islamic Relief said the US attacks were making it impossible to distribute relief because laborers and truckers were afraid to unload food, or to stay overnight in towns.
The Taliban regime had also started levying enormous taxes on aid convoys trying to enter Afghanistan, one agency added. And the Taliban have threatened to hang anyone caught using a satellite telephone, making it almost impossible to coordinate relief distribution.
Nick Roseveare (C) from Oxfam, Dominic Nutt (L) from Christian Aid and Sikander Ali (R) representing Islamic Relief speak to journalists in Islamabad October 17, 2001. A group of non-governmental aid agencies urged the United States on Wednesday to temporarily halt air strikes on Afghanistan so that food supplies can be sent to hundreds of thousands of needy people before winter sets in. REUTERS/Pawel Kopczynski
But Clare Short, Britain's secretary of state for international development, said that she believed food could still be delivered.
"We have got to get food in and bring the bombing to an end as soon as possible," Ms Short told reporters in Islamabad. "Of course the bombing makes the situation more difficult, but the food is getting in and brave Afghan workers are still distributing food inside Afghanistan."
Ms Short spent the day in meetings with Pakistan's military ruler, General Pervez Musharraf, and the finance minister, Shaukat Aziz, discussing the humanitarian crisis.
She said UN deliveries of food into the country were approaching the target of 52,000 tons a month. "We are getting towards that kind of figure if we can maintain the daily input we have got now," she said.
The UN World Food Program, too, said deliveries in the past week had increased sharply.
Shipments were halted between September 11 and September 24, but after that about 17,000 tons had gone into the country, said Khaled Mansour, a spokesman for the WFP. In recent days the level reached about 1,000 tons a day.
But last night Oxfam said it had confirmation of the first starvation deaths inside Afghanistan since the military campaign began. According to John Fairhurst, Oxfam's Afghanistan director, six people had died in the village of Jalai, in the remote northern province of Badghis. They included two old women and an old man, as well as three children aged under three.
"In other places we are seeing starving people become so weak they eventually die from diarrhea," he said. "In many places people are eating wild plants. In some areas even the wild plants have run out." And some areas will soon be inaccessible due to snow.
Aid distribution inside Afghanistan worsened two days ago when an American missile exploded near a UN World Food Program depot in Kabul, the agencies said. Afghan workers had been loading 250 tons of food for what would have been the first aid convoy to Hazarajat, in the central hinterland, since September 11. "The food never made it," Nick Roseveare, an Oxfam spokesman, said.
The agencies yesterday called on all sides to suspend military action. There would be a "huge loss of life and unspeakable suffering through the winter" if the bombing went on, Oxfam said. The UN estimates that at least 5.5m Afghans are short of food, while 2m people lack enough food to last the winter.
Of those, half a million will be cut off when snows sweep in by mid-November.
The agencies said millions of people were on the move in Afghanistan. Many were heading out of cities to rural areas. But in other cases entire villages had decided to migrate after running out of food.
Dominic Nutt, of Christian Aid, said the system for distributing aid inside Afghanistan had almost collapsed, with most local staff afraid to work after American bombs hit the Red Cross building in Kabul two days ago.
"There should be justice for the people of America. But the scales of justice cannot be balanced by the deaths of hundreds of thousands of innocent Afghans," he added.
The continuing American air operation to drop food packets was "unhelpful", Mr Nutt maintained. There was scant evidence that the food was reaching the weak and vulnerable, he said. The "strong and fit" were eating it.
© Guardian Newspapers Limited 2001