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U.S. gives $43 million to Afghanistan

By Elise Labott CNN Washington Bureau

WASHINGTON -- Warning that Afghanistan is "on the verge of a widespread famine," Secretary of State Colin Powell Thursday announced a $43 million package in humanitarian assistance for the Afghan people.

Powell also called on other nations to send aid to the Central Asian nation.

"If the international community does not take immediate action, countless deaths and terrible tragedy are certain to follow," Powell said.

The package includes $28 million worth of wheat from the U.S. Department of Agriculture, $5 million in food commodities and $10 million in "livelihood and food security" programs, both from the U.S. Agency for International Development.

Powell called the crisis a "looming catastrophe," and said that he was working with U.N. Secretary-General Kofi Annan to press upon potential donors the need to respond to the humanitarian situation in Afghanistan "with energy and dispatch."

Almost 4 million at risk

A nation of 26 million, Afghanistan has been hit by three consecutive years of drought. The nation has also endured more than 20 years of civil strife. The Taliban religious militia, which imposes a harsh brand of Islam, captured Afghanistan's capital, Kabul, in 1996 and now controls an estimated 95 percent of the country.

The Thursday aid announcement follows the return of a U.S. delegation last month from a visit to Afghanistan, where it found the population on the verge of a famine due to a devastating drought.

Leonard Rogers, the deputy assistant administrator of USAID's Bureau for Humanitarian Response, estimated that Afghanistan is nearly 2 million tons short of what the country needs to feed its people, a deficit two times more than last year. According to U.N. figures, 3.8 million people in the country are at risk of famine.

Powell said the United States expects to announce additional assistance to Afghan refugees, and would continue to look for ways to provide more aid to Afghanistan, especially for farmers feeling the crunch from a ban on poppy cultivation, a decision by the ruling Taliban that the U.S. welcomes.

The United Nations estimates that the drought has forced more than 700,000 people to flee their homes, landing at camps for internally displaced citizens.

The team visiting Afghanistan found the conditions of the camps woefully inadequate, and said that the shelter facilities, water and sanitation was very poor.

Officials were especially concerned about refugees leaving Afghanistan for bordering countries, such as Pakistan and Iran, and expressed concern that those countries might send the refugees back to Afghanistan.

One "holding facility" on the Pakistani side of the border in Jalozai was described as inappropriate for holding refugees.

Alan Kreczko, acting assistant secretary of state for the Bureau of Population, Refugee and Migration Affairs, said that while the United States "understands the frustration" felt by the border countries who have acted as "generous hosts," he cautioned "this is not the time" to send the refugees back.

U.N. to distribute aid

While U.S. officials cited the drought as the major factor for the deepening humanitarian crisis, the members of the delegation said that Afghanistan's ruling Taliban's regime and the security problems it presents, hinders access and contributed to the situation.

The U.N. Security Council imposed sanctions against the Taliban in an effort to pressure the militia to hand over Saudi exile Osama bin Laden, who is accused of bombing two U.S. embassies in Africa. Humanitarian aid is allowed.

Powell said the U.S. aid is administered by the United Nations and non-governmental organizations, and bypasses the Taliban, "who have done little to alleviate the suffering of the Afghan people, and indeed have done much to exacerbate it."

The sum brings U.S. assistance to $124.2 million for this year, making the United States the largest Afghan donor for the second year in a row.

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