Taliban Uses Food As Weapon

While foreign relief agencies champ at the bit to deliver food supplies to the starving in Afghanistan, the Taliban government is making distribution nearly impossible.

The United Nations' World Food Programs says the Taliban government has seized food supplies already in the country and closed the WFP office in Kandahar, where the Taliban headquarters is.

There is a critical food crisis in the country, but most foreign aid organizations, including the United Nations, pulled its foreign workers from Afghanistan following the Sept. 11 attacks.

U.N. officials also say the Taliban has threatened to execute any U.N. employees who use key equipment in their offices in Afghanistan, a move that has nearly shut down the remaining relief work being done in the country.

The restrictions on relief work come even as there are signs the Taliban grip on Afghanistan may be slipping — even before any U.S. assault for not handing over the prime suspect in the attacks on New York and Washington.

Rebels called the Northern Alliance hold much of the north, and would welcome the overthrow of the Taliban.

The Taliban's strict policies to create the world's purest Islamic state and the country's position as a pariah in the world community have disheartened many Afghans who welcomed them as bringers of peace when they swept to power in 1996.

Meanwhile, the leader of the Taliban demanded Monday that the United States withdraw its forces from the Gulf and end its "bias" against Palestinians if it wants to eliminate the threat of terrorism.

The militia began raiding U.N. offices in cities such as Kabul, the capital, and Kandahar, where Taliban leadership is based, over the weekend and sealing their satellite telephones, walkie-talkies, computers and vehicles to bar them from further use, said Stephanie Bunker, the chief U.N. spokeswoman said here.

"They warned our staff that if they use these things they will face execution," said Gordon Weiss, the spokesman for UNICEF in Islamabad.

A Northern Alliance anti-aircraft gun.

CBS News Correspondent Elizabeth Palmer reports members of the Taliban admit they've lost ground close to their main military stronghold in the north, but that may be because they've decided to move men and equipment south toward the capital of Kabul in anticipation of an American attack.

CBS News Reporter Phil Ittner, in northern Afghanistan, says the Northern Alliance was quick to capitalize on the withdrawal, forcing the Taliban to give up strategic aifields in the northwest.

Also weakening are the few international links the hardline movement had. The United Arab Emirates broke off diplomatic relations on Saturday, leaving only Pakistan and Saudi Arabia recognizing the state.

"Pakistan has withdrawn all diplomats and other staff from Afghanistan for security reasons," Foreign Ministry spokesman Riaz Mohammed Khan announced Monday.

He declined to answer questions over whether Pakistan intended to cut off diplomatic ties with the Taliban government.

"People are turning away from the Taliban because they know international support will not be forthcoming as long as they are in power," said Rahimullah Yusufzai, a Pakistani journalist who has met the Taliban's reclusive leader, Mullah Mohammad Omar.

"They have alienated a large number of people because of their policies," he said. "The support they had at the beginning was huge, but they have been losing that support, although it is not organised."

Many Afghans have become fed up with the Taliban's continued war with its Northern Alliance rivals, the strict lifestyle imposed on them and the deteriorating standard of living.

"There is so much despair," said one United Nations aid worker evacuated from Afghanistan after the Sept. 11 attacks. "They have not seen anything get better. They've given up hope and are sick of worrying about breaking some crazy Taliban law," the aid worker said.

Afghan workers move sacks of wheat in Pakistan, where an onslaught of refugees is expected.

About 30 non-governmental organizations have been pressing the U.N.'s World Food Program to end a ban on food shipments to Afghanistan and before U.S. bombs and winter snows fall and rush in tons of wheat immediately.

"The WFP suspended food shipments on Sept. 11, and we're getting increasingly angry about it," said Alex Renton, spokesman for the British charity Oxfam, the largest non-governmental organization operating here.

"This is a prime time for delivering food. By the end of December, close to two million people will be facing starvation."

Andrew Wilder of Save the Children U.S. was just as impatient to get moving.

"We're not sure how much time we have left to get food into Afghanistan," he said. "Now is the time to take risks."

"We are worried about the safety of our remaining workers there and concerned about the fate of our programs," WFP's Weiss said. "Life will become more miserable for the more than 1 million people displaced because of drought and civil war."

When the Taliban swept to power in 1996, they were quickly ccepted by Afghans fed up with years of war against the Soviet Union followed by a civil conflict that had left much of the country in an outlaw limbo.

The Taliban quickly imposed order and a semblance of normal life in the parts of the country they controlled while fighting the opposition Northern Alliance.

But they have been criticized for denying basic education and employment rights to women, and were the objects of worldwide disgust earlier this year when they destroyed two huge 2,000-year-old Buddhist statues in Bamiyan.

"The only time you hear about the Taliban overseas is when they do something to limit women's rights or they are cutting down historical Buddhist statues," the aid worker said.

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