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U.N. Aid Suffers Heavy Damage During Attacks by Military Forces

By Alissa J. Rubin
LOS ANGELES TIMES -- ISLAMABAD, PAKISTAN

Humanitarian aid for starving and displaced civilians fell victim over the weekend in parts of Afghanistan to all three forces battling in the country -- the ruling Taliban, the opposition Northern Alliance and the U.S. military -- United Nations officials here reported Monday.

The incidents, which occurred in Bamian province, where U.S. warplanes struck, and in the opposition-held northern city of Mazar-e-Sharif, put in sharp relief the lack of security for civilians.

The damage from U.S. bombing occurred when shrapnel hit a convoy of 22 World Food Program trucks parked beside a road near the town of Shaspuhl, in an area of central Afghanistan that remains under Taliban control. Two of the vehicles were destroyed and others were damaged after at least one bomb hit. There were no casualties.

The trucks were carrying 330 tons of food, which is enough to feed between 40,000 and 45,000 people for a month, said Lindsey Davies, a spokeswoman for the U.N. program. Only about 20 percent of the food is still usable, she said.

Davies said the convoy had not been targeted by the planes but had been damaged by the flying shrapnel. U.N. officials immediately used a hot line to U.S. Central Command headquarters in Tampa, Fla., where targets are designated, to let American officials know about the incident, Davies said. Aid organizations have been careful to inform the U.S. military about when they are traveling and by which routes, she added.

Other reports by U.N. officials painted a picture of Mazar-e-Sharif as a violent and unpredictable place during the last few days, as Taliban forces retreated and the Northern Alliance gained the upper hand. The city fell to the opposition forces Friday.

“We have had reports of violence, looting, abductions and uncontrolled free-lance gunmen,” Davies said.

The World Food Program also lost food in Mazar-e-Sharif, when a warehouse that contained 89 tons of oil, sugar and high-energy biscuits was looted by armed gunmen. It was unclear whether they were affiliated with combatants or merely were looters taking advantage of the chaos.

UNICEF’s operations were particularly hard hit in Mazar-e-Sharif. Northern Alliance soldiers commandeered a convoy of 10 agency trucks carrying water pumps and tents for displaced civilians. The vehicles are believed to be in the possession of a local alliance commander, said Chulho Hyun, a spokesman for the organization. UNICEF officials have been trying to make contact with the commander to retrieve the trucks and check on the welfare of the drivers, all local Afghans.

Taliban forces also took UNICEF vehicles in the city. In a separate incident, armed men broke into the relief agency’s office and stole computers, satellite phones and furniture, Hyun said.

“This makes it difficult for us to work in Mazar-e-Sharif,” Hyun said. “The children in that region, given the urgent situation and the onset of winter, are in great need, and this adds to the difficulties of helping them.”

The world body will undertake a security assessment Tuesday of routes between the city and the border with Uzbekistan, about 35 miles north, to see whether it is safe to send aid to northern Afghanistan in the next few days, said Stephanie Bunker, a spokeswoman for the United Nations’ coordinating office.