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Uzbekistan opens border town to U.N.

By CNN's Alessio Vinci

TASHKENT, Uzbekistan (CNN) -- Uzbekistan says it will give U.N. aid agencies access to its southern border town and river port of Termez.

The agencies will be able to use the "port and barges to move humanitarian aid to northern Afghanistan," said U.N. Undersecretary General for Humanitarian Affairs, Kenzo Oshima, after meeting with Uzbek leaders.

Humanitarian groups have had trouble reaching northern parts of Afghanistan, where U.N. officials say half a million people have been internally displaced and up to three million need aid.

Besides the U.S. airstrikes, the agencies have been hampered by fighting between the ruling Taliban and Northern Alliance opposition forces. Many Afghans have also fled to many remote locations. Asia
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No timeline for the start of the mission was given, but Oshima said he would like the delivery of food to begin "as soon as possible".

Afghan help

While Taliban forces remain in control of northern Afghanistan along the Uzbek border, Oshima said Afghan nationals would be able to help once the aid has been delivered to the other side of the river.

"This is a problem which has to do with the absence of international staff inside Afghanistan, lack of communication," Oshima said. "All these factors combined make the situation inside Afghanistan ... rather difficult."

Oshima said it was not necessary for anti-Taliban forces to take control of the key northern town of Mazar-e Sharif before relief agencies could start moving south out of Uzbekistan.

As part of its deal with the United Nations, the Uzbek government said it would also allow humanitarian flights to land directly at Termez airport, bypassing customs procedures in Tashkent.

Aid agencies -- World Food Programme (WFP) and the U.N. High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR) -- are already stockpiling goods at a warehouse in Termez in anticipation of the beginning of the new humanitarian mission.

A WFP official said they hope to stockpile 16,000 tons of food a month.

Ferries only

But fearing an influx of refugees, Uzbekistan will not re-open its border with Afghanistan -- closed since 1998 -- and U.N. trucks will not be allowed to use the only bridge linking Uzbekistan and Afghanistan across the Amu Darya river.

That's why the Uzbeks will only allow aid to be ferried across through on barges.

"We hope that if groups of people are really desperately pushing at the border and have no other choice but to seek protection in Uzbekistan -- we hope this situation will not occur -- but if it did occur we hope Uzbekistan will adopt a very humanitarian guarantee in that sense," said Filippo Grandi, chief of mission, UNHCR Afghanistan.

Asked if the Uzbek government had given him any guarantees, Grandi answered, "No, not yet."

Uzbekistan has emerged as one of the leading regional supporters of the U.S.-led military campaign in Afghanistan, and has already offered U.S. forces the use of a military airbase close to the Afghan border.


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