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Millions Face Death, Aid Agencies Say

Crisis: Massive U.S. airlift called best hope for survival. At least 500,000 will be cut off from truck convoys.


WASHINGTON — More than 6 million Afghan civilians, buffeted by drought and military campaigns, are in danger of starving or freezing to death this winter, two nongovernmental aid agencies said Friday.

For hundreds of thousands of Afghans, the best hope for survival may be a massive U.S. airlift of food and other supplies, the agencies said.

Although overland truck convoy is by far the most efficient way to deliver food in the country, at least 500,000 people are trapped in areas that will be cut off from such shipments by winter conditions, Refugees International and Oxfam International said in separate but similar reports.

The two groups said that in some cases, U.S. airstrikes and fighting between the Taliban regime and opposition forces have kept truck drivers off the roads. Heavy snow expected by the end of the month also will close off some delivery routes.

The Refugees International report charges that the Taliban has responded to the bombing by moving its military assets "close to or within the compounds of humanitarian organizations and camps for the internally displaced, thereby daring coalition aircraft to damage civilian facilities and kill innocent people."

Pentagon officials recently have made similar claims about the radical Islamic regime.

Special Danger Seen in 'Non-Afghan Militias'

Both aid organizations were highly critical of actions by Osama bin Laden's Al Qaeda terrorist network, which the Taliban allows to operate in Afghanistan.

Refugees International said that "non-Afghan militias," a category that includes Al Qaeda, "are considered especially dangerous, as their purpose is to ruthlessly destroy all non-Islamic institutions in the country."

The two aid organizations have representatives in neighboring Pakistan who are trying to organize aid for Afghan civilians.

The reports also draw on information provided by the United Nations.

Throughout the ravaged nation of 25 million, between 6 million and 7.5 million civilians are "at risk," including 600,000 "on the edge of survival," said London-based Oxfam.

Both Oxfam and Refugees International, a Washington-based advocacy group, said a U.S.-operated airlift may be the only way to reach many hundreds of thousands of needy Afghans. Both reports say Washington should seek Taliban cooperation in reaching the hungry but that the Pentagon should consider going ahead over Taliban objections.

"The World Food Program should initiate immediate negotiations with the belligerents to determine if it will be feasible to establish an air corridor for safe passage into this region," Refugees International said. "If all else fails, the [U.S.-led] coalition military forces should organize and implement lifesaving airdrops."

The Pentagon has already dropped more than 1 million food packets into Afghanistan.

But Larry Thompson, a Refugees International official who helped prepare the report, said that is "not nearly enough to meet the need."

Some food is available for sale, but the cost is beyond the means of most Afghans, Refugees International said, urging donors to find a way to get cash to Afghans to permit them to buy food and other necessities.

"Many Afghans, having sold their draft animals, their rugs, even the roof beams from their houses, have literally no assets left to generate cash for food," the report says.

The report also says the Taliban is preventing civilians from escaping to the relative safety of neighboring countries.

Powell Says U.S. Will Do What It Can

Talking to employees of the U.S. government's Agency for International Development, Secretary of State Colin L. Powell promised Friday that the United States will do what it can to deliver food. But he didn't mention the sort of airlift that Refugees International and Oxfam advocate.

"Working with the World Food Program, the United Nations and [various nongovernmental organizations], we're going to mount a campaign to make sure we do everything we can to bring hope, to bring nourishment, to bring some expectation of a better life to the people we can get to in Afghanistan," Powell said.

Oxfam called for a pause in all military action, including airstrikes, in some regions to permit food stocks to be replenished. The Pentagon has rejected such suggestions in the past, and the Taliban has demonstrated scorn for international aid agencies.

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