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Bush to announce $5 million in Afghan food aid

Humanitarian aid
Afghans unload rice and wheat in northern Afghanistan.  

From Major Garrett and Kelly Wallace
CNN Washington Bureau

WASHINGTON (CNN) -- President Bush is expected to announce Monday the shipment of tons of U.S. processed food worth more than $5 million to Afghanistan, senior administration officials told CNN.

The announcement is part of a broader humanitarian effort to feed starving Afghans, an initiative that officials said is getting renewed attention during the holiday season.

The shipment -- expected to include 10,000 metric tons of items such as yellow peas, vegetable oil, corn soy blend, wheat soy blend and lentils -- is due to leave Tuesday from Lake Charles, Louisiana. It is expected to be the first of many humanitarian efforts that the anti-terrorist coalition is launching in the coming weeks, senior officials said.

The U.S. food aid is to be delivered to Afghanistan via Iran and Pakistan, said a spokeswoman for the U.S. Agency for International Development (AID). A total of 6,900 tons are slated for Iran, and 3,100 tons are to be sent to Karachi, Pakistan. The World Food Programme then will carry the food over land into Afghanistan.

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U.S. planes already have been dropping some humanitarian relief into Afghanistan, including wheat, blankets and ready-to-eat rations.

Before the September 11 terrorist attacks, 165,000 metric tons of U.S. processed food was on its way to the people of Afghanistan, the AID spokeswoman said. Of that amount, 65,000 metric tons have arrived in Iran, but the rest is en route to Pakistan.

Bush's planned announcement comes as a trickle of refugees are beginning to return to Afghanistan from camps in border countries, the United Nations said Monday. U.N. aid worker Filippo Grandi said most of the returnees, which he described as "a very small number," are destitute Afghans.

Grandi said an estimated 5 million to 6 million Afghans are living in neighboring countries such as Pakistan or Iran or have been uprooted inside Afghanistan. About 140,000 Afghans have fled to Pakistan since September 11, according to U.N. estimates.

"This is a huge proportion," Grandi added. "It is a bigger proportion than in any other displacement crisis," including Yugoslavia or Rwanda.

Grandi, who works for the U.N. High Commissioner for Refugees, said that even if 20 percent of the Afghan refugees in surrounding areas come back the number of returnees would be 800,000 people.

U.N. aid representatives spoke to reporters Monday in Kabul for the first time since returning to the Afghan capital. The world body's international staff left Afghanistan in the aftermath of the September 11 attacks.

Grandi said he expects a large movement of people by winter's end.

"We think the bulk of the people will return just after the winter," Grandi said. "One of the main objectives of my agency is to get ready for a very large repatriation movement. Now how large it will be is anybody's guess."

With 20 years of war, Taliban restrictions on women's health care and a recent, severe drought, Afghan children "were some of the poorest and least healthy in the world," even before the conflict began in October, said Carol Bellamy, executive director of the U.N. children's fund UNICEF.

"Now recently since so many of them have had to leave their homes, not only are they subject to malnourishment but also to exposure with winter coming," Bellamy said.

Also Monday, about 50 ambassadors from Muslim nations are to attend a fast-breaking dinner at the White House in honor of the Muslim holy month of Ramadan, which began over the weekend. Called an Iftar, such dinners are held at sunset, ending the day's fast.

Aides said they believed it would be the first time such a meal has been held at the White House and would be symbolic that the United States is not targeting Muslims in its antiterrorism campaign.

The ambassadors invited to the White House for the Iftar dinner will gather for prayer in the White House East reception room, then join the president in the State Dining Room, where he will deliver remarks, a White House spokesman said.

The administration also is encouraging U.S. embassies in Muslim countries to host Iftar dinners to show that the United States is sensitive to Muslims and Muslim nations, the spokesman said.


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