TASHKENT, Uzbekistan -- With millions of people facing winter cold, disease and hunger in northern Afghanistan, humanitarian relief has been moving painfully slowly by river barge from neighboring Uzbekistan.
Plans announced Saturday for opening the Friendship Bridge road route over the Amu Darya River border will likely speed things up.
Aid stockpiled in Uzbekistan will be taken by truck convoys to an estimated 3.4 million people in northern Afghanistan dependent on outside relief, including about 1.1 million in refugee camps across seven northern provinces.
''It definitely will save a lot of hassles,'' Ruppa Joshi, a spokesperson for the U.N. Children's Fund, said of the bridge's opening. She said there were reports of babies already perishing from exposure to the increasingly frigid weather.
Joshi said UNICEF's priorities included items to protect against winter conditions, milk, biscuits and medicines. Nearly 200,000 blankets are being flown from India in coming days.
''We are sitting here hungry, on the brink of starvation and nobody is interested in our plight,'' said one old woman, huddled in a threadbare tent at the Zayeni Ghaleh refugee camp on the outskirts of Mazar-e-Sharif in northern Afghanistan. The woman, whose name was not available, spoke to AP Television News Friday.
The woman, who had lost contact with her husband, said she had been at the makeshift camp for about four months and had earlier worked as a laborer in cotton fields. More than 300 families from various regions of the north were seeking shelter at Zayeni Ghaleh.
UNICEF predicted that some 100,000 babies could die this winter if adequate supplies did not reach them in time.
The French military is also reportedly working to reopen the airport at Mazar-e-Sharif, which could serve as another conduit for humanitarian supplies. Airlifts would prove a safer option than land convoys, amid reports of Taliban hold-outs and conflicts among local warlords.
So far, aid has been moving by barge from Termez, an Uzbek port on the Amu Darya, to the Afghan side of the Amu-Darya River.
An Uzbek Foreign Ministry official said it might take a week before traffic started rolling across the Friendship Bridge to Mazar-e-Sharif and elsewhere in the north.
The Friendship bridge has been closed since 1996. Secretary of State Colin Powell announced its reopening at a press conference Saturday with Uzbek President Islam Karimov.
Civil war in Afghanistan and problems with Uzbekistan's own Islamic fundamentalists in the frontier region has isolated and impoverished Termez -- once a thriving trade centers. It has become a key base for aid agencies.
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