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Aid flows as key Afghan border bridge re-opens

By Robert Pelton

HERATON, Afghanistan (CNN) -- For the first time since 1997, a freight train rolled across the "Friendship Bridge" from Uzbekistan into Afghanistan bringing much needed humanitarian supplies into the conflict-torn country.

The bridge, closed to vehicular traffic since May 1997, was reopened on Sunday to help speed up humanitarian efforts.

The aid shipment across the Amu Darya river -- the first of many planned for the next few days -- is a major development in Afghanistan's post-Taliban history.

Uzbekistan closed the bridge for security reasons after the Taliban came to power, citing concerns that Islamic militants might cross into their country to foment opposition to the government.

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Officials with the World Food Programme attended the opening and said a number of aid shipments were waiting to cross the bridge into Afghanistan.

Also in attendance was Gen. Abdul Rashid Dostum, a Northern Alliance commander.

He said he sent a letter to U.S. Gen. Tommy Franks, the commander of U.S. forces in Afghanistan, promising he was ready to respond should the aid convoys encounter security problems.

Still, the half-mile "Friendship Bridge" remained guarded along its entire length by Uzbek soldiers in helmets and flak jackets, standing behind sandbags.

Uzbek President Islam Karimov agreed Saturday to open the bridge following a visit by U.S. Secretary of State Colin Powell.

The secretary and humanitarian organizations had pressed for the move, saying it would clear the way for much needed aid to be delivered to thousands of Afghans as winter sets in.

The aid organizations said that after three years of drought, at least one quarter of Afghanistan's 24 million people are dependent on food assistance.

With temperatures dropping in the war-ravaged country, they are also in need of shelter and supplies, the aid groups said. The bridge is important for military reasons as well.

More than 1,000 U.S. troops from the 10th Mountain Division have been based in Uzbekistan since October to conduct search-and-rescue missions in Afghanistan, which until now have been conducted by air.


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