Uzbeks open bridge for aid to Afghans

Associated Press

HAIRATON, Afghanistan — A train rumbled across the only bridge from Uzbekistan into Afghanistan for the first time in four years on Sunday, carrying humanitarian aid for refugees battling winter cold, disease and hunger.

Aid agencies have been clamoring for Uzbekistan to open the bridge, warning that aid shipped across the Amu Darya River by barge was not getting through fast enough for millions of displaced Afghans.

The Soviet army built the Friendship Bridge for its war in Afghanistan and used it to withdraw in defeat 12 years ago. On Sunday, the train that crossed the newly reopened span carried 10,000 tons of grain and flour sent from Uzbekistan and the United Nations — and a message of solidarity.

Armed guards in camouflage stood watch along the bridge as the train set off, flying Uzbekistan’s flag and a banner reading "From the Uzbek people to the Afghan people."

The bridge spans the muddy Amu Darya and links the Uzbek river port of Termez with the Afghan town of Hairaton, about 40 miles from Mazar-e-Sharif, the largest city in northern Afghanistan.

Afghan warlord Rashid Dostum, an ethnic Uzbek who rules in the area around Mazar-e-Sharif, arrived in a chauffeured black car to meet the shipment on the Afghan side.

The bridge has been a touchy issue for the authoritarian government of Uzbekistan, a former Soviet republic that is now a key U.S. ally in the war against terrorism. More than 1,000 U.S. troops are stationed in Uzbekistan, and it has opened its airspace to the United States for humanitarian and search and rescue operations.

But Uzbekistan balked at repeated requests from the United States and others to reopen the bridge, citing security concerns. The secular government of mostly Muslim Uzbekistan has feared militant Islam since the Soviet collapse, and the bridge had been closed since 1997, when the hard-line Taliban took power on the other side.

Secretary of State Colin Powell used a visit to the Uzbek capital Tashkent on Saturday to announce that the Uzbek government had agreed to open the gateway. Aid officials said they were relieved that the first train crossed, but remain wary after such a long wait.

"It’s absolutely wonderful news that they have taken steps to open the bridge today, but we still need details on whether it will be open to all international aid staff and all international relief goods which we want to move quickly across the border," Brendan Paddy, spokesman for the London-based agency Save the Children, said in Tashkent.

Paddy said agencies are urgently seeking information about how the bridge will operate, and until then Save the Children will continue to pursue alternative routes.

Aid agencies say an estimated 3.4 million people in northern Afghanistan are depending on outside relief to survive the winter.

Copyright ©2001 Associated Press. All rights reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten, or redistributed.

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