HAIRATON, Afghanistan – The only bridge connecting Uzbekistan and Afghanistan reopened Sunday for the first time since 1997, and the first train carrying much-needed humanitarian aid for Afghanistan crossed over.
The Friendship Bridge spans the Amu Darya River and links Termez, in Uzbekistan, to the Afghan town of Hairaton, about 40 miles from Mazar-e-Sharif, the largest city in northern Afghanistan.
The Soviet army built the bridge for its war in Afghanistan, and used it to withdraw after its defeat against U.S.-backed Afghan fighters 12 years ago.
The bridge was closed when the Taliban Islamic militia moved into the border area. Uzbekistan feared Islamic extremists would use it to infiltrate Uzbekistan and foment revolution there.
The reopening of the bridge is expected to speed aid to Afghan refugees who are battling cold, hunger and disease.
The train, adorned with banners saying "from the Uzbek people to the Afghan people," carried 1,000 tons of grain and flour sent from Uzbekistan and the United Nations.
Uzbekistan had been reluctant to reopen the bridge despite pressure from the United Nations and aid agencies, citing concerns about security.
The train was met on the Afghan side of the bridge by Afghan warlord Rashid Dostum, an ethnic Uzbek who rules in northern Afghanistan in the area around Mazar-e-Sharif.
Aid officials on Saturday stressed that the bridge was a key element to the aid program for Afghanistan. The crossing is the only bridge across the river border between Uzbekistan and Afghanistan.
"It's very important. It definitely will save a lot of hassles," said Ruppa Joshi, a spokeswoman for the U.N. Children's Fund in Tashkent.
Joshi said the system of ferrying humanitarian relief by barge from the river port of Termez to the Afghanistan side was time-consuming and complicated.
The aid delivered Sunday was to be loaded onto trucks and taken to Mazar-e-Sharif for distribution.