The United Nations is set to issue an unprecedented appeal to the United States and its coalition allies to halt the war on Afghanistan and allow time for a huge relief operation.
UN sources in Pakistan said growing concern over the deteriorating humanitarian situation in the country - in part, they say, caused by the relentless bombing campaign - has forced them to take the radical step. Aid officials estimate that up to 7.5 million Afghans might be threatened with starvation.
'The situation is completely untenable inside Afghanistan. We really need to get our point across here and have to be very bold in doing it. Unless the [US air] strikes stop, there will be a huge number of deaths,' one UN source said.
The move will embarrass Clare Short, the International Development Secretary, who said last week that there was no 'cause and effect' between the bombing and the ability of aid agencies to deliver much-needed food and shelter.
Aid workers yesterday strongly rejected Short's statements. 'Basically the bombing makes it difficult to get enough supplies in. It is as simple as that,' an Islamabad-based aid official told The Observer .
Dominic Nutt, a spokesman for the British charity Christian Aid, called Short's remarks sickening. 'Needy people are being put at risk by government spin-doctors who are showing a callous disregard for life,' he said. 'To say that there is no link is not just misleading but profoundly dangerous.' Christian Aid report 600 people have already died in the Dar-e-Suf region of northern Afghanistan due to starvation, malnutrition and related diseases.
Other agencies confirmed that the sick, the young and the old are already dying in refugee camps around the northern city of Mazar-e-Sharif.
The World Food Program has calculated that 52,000 tons of wheat must be distributed in Afghanistan each month to stave off mass starvation. Since the aid program was restarted - on 25 September - only 20,000 tons have been supplied and 15,000 distributed. The concern is that the coming winter will make relief efforts more difficult. The first snows have already fallen on the Hindu Kush mountains and the isolated highlands of Hazarajat.
But though the WFP is accelerating the supply of food, it says it is unlikely to be able to bring in more than two-thirds of what is required. And it is clear that little aid is reaching the most remote areas where the need is greatest.
A new assessment by aid workers on the ground in Afghanistan will be presented to UN co-ordinators in Islamabad this week. It shows that the effects of the three-year drought that has hit Afghanistan are far worse than previously thought. Areas in the north-east are of particular concern.
In the western city of Herat food deliveries are barely keeping up with demand from the 1,000 people a day who are arriving at refugee camps.
'We are getting a significant amount of food into the country and we are desperately trying to get it to more remote areas. The usual distribution networks are hugely disrupted. At the moment a trickle is getting through,' said Michael Huggins, a spokesman for the WFP.
He said the WFP operation was hampered by a lack of truck drivers willing to carry food through Afghanistan because of the bombing raids, high fuel prices and communication difficulties.
The Taliban have also caused problems for aid agencies. A series of offices have been looted in major cities, prompting French agency Médecins Sans Frontières to shut down its entire Afghan operation. There have been a number of attempts to steal vehicles from aid agencies. The Taliban have also delayed relief convoys by demanding high taxes on their passage.
Although the expected influx of refugees to Pakistan has yet to occur, there are signs of larger shifts of population than before. The last three days have seen more than 10,000 people cross the border from Afghanistan around the Taliban stronghold of Kandahar.
Refugees report a breakdown in law and order in Kandahar. 'It is impossible to live there now,' one said.
© Guardian Newspapers Limited 2001