TERMEZ, Uzbekistan – International aid agencies raced against winter weather Friday to try to get food, blankets and other supplies to hungry and cold Afghans across the country.
A U.N. official said the United Nations hoped to soon restore regular operations in the key northern city of Mazar-e-Sharif just south of the border with Uzbekistan, boosting efforts to get aid to needy Afghans.
Meanwhile, the World Food Program said it had launched an airbridge to Afghanistan to try to bring food urgently needed in northeastern Afghanistan near the border with Tajikistan, where the cold already has set in.
It was the first humanitarian airlift launched from Tajikistan to bring food into Afghanistan. Aircraft bringing about 17 tons of wheat flour left for the city of Faizabad, the provincial capital of Badakhshan.
``Time is ticking, winter has started, and we need to get this food as quickly as possible into the less accessible regions of northeastern Afghanistan,'' Bukhard Oberle, the WFP Afghanistan Country Director, said in a statement.
In western Afghanistan, the distribution of food and blankets supplied by Iran's Red Crescent Society began to displaced Afghans living in two overcrowded refugee camps outside the town of Herat.
A convoy of 16 trucks loaded with 125 tons of food and other supplies arrived in Herat on Thursday night and the relief distribution began Friday to a total of 1,255 families.
In Geneva, officials from the International Organization for Migration said a 30-truck convoy of winter clothing, blankets, cooking sets, hurricane lamps and books had arrived at the Turkmenistan border and was expected to cross over into northern Afghanistan on Saturday. An IOM airlift of 7,100 winterized tents from Pakistan was due to begin next week.
A nine-truck convoy from Iran is expected to arrive in Herat on Saturday, IOM officials said.
Speaking in the Uzbek border town of Termez, Antonio Donini, deputy U.N. coordinator for Afghanistan, said he had met Thursday with Gen. Rashid Dostum — one of the warlords who took back the city Nov. 9 — and received assurances international staff could operate safely there.
``We were assured that we could resume activities as normal,'' Donini said in the Uzbek port city of Termez, adding that staff could return permanently to Mazar-e-Sharif within a week. ``The authorities understand that the eyes of the world are on them.''
U.N. officials were to meet Saturday with the other two warlords who took the city, but Donini said ``we feel confident that (the city) is under one control'' — meaning Dostum.
Although he still saw men roaming the streets with guns, Donini said the number had lessened in the last few days as normal life returns to the city.
Mazar-e-Sharif has a violent history in recent years as control of the city has shifted back and forth between Taliban and opposition forces — leading to retribution killings or mass murders of civilians by both sides.
The uncertainty over the security situation in Mazar-e-Sharif and fighting in nearby Kunduz for the moment are also preventing the opening of the Friendship Bridge — the only crossing from Uzbekistan into Afghanistan over the Amu-Darya River.
Opening the bridge, near Termez, would allow aid supplies to be sent much quicker to the 3.4 million people who rely on assistance in northern Afghanistan. U.N. aid is now going into the region on a cumbersome system of barges or taking a much longer route through Turkmenistan.