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Relief workers tell of looting, violence in Mazar-e-Sharif

Relief workers in Mazar-e-Sharif, the Afghan city that fell Friday to the Northern Alliance, have sent U.N. officials in Pakistan alarming reports of looted warehouses, disrupted and stolen aid convoys, and violent lawlessness over the weekend.

"Some armed elements looted (relief group) offices, including food warehouses. Some speak of violence and summary executions," said U.N. spokeswoman Stephanie Bunker, who added that the reports are unconfirmed and that it is not clear in some cases which side, the Taliban or the Northern Alliance, committed the crimes.

The reports came from aid workers in Afghanistan, whom U.N. officials would not identify for security reasons.

Bunker said the plight of millions of poor and displaced Afghans, already a "human catastrophe of unimaginable proportions," would worsen unless law and order come to the city.

To add to the relief workers' difficulties, a 22-truck World Food Program convoy carrying 330 tons of food to Bamiyan was hit by shrapnel from a U.S.-led aerial bombardment. Two of the trucks were destroyed and 80 percent of the food was rendered useless.

Chulho Hyun, a spokesman for the U.N. Children's Fund, said the Northern Alliance seized a 10-truck, 200-metric-ton UNICEF supply convoy Friday that included 300 water pumps and 150 family tents with heaters. Those supplies are now at a Northern Alliance command post, and Hyun said relief workers were trying to contact opposition leaders to get them back.

Hyun said that soon after the fall of Mazar-e-Sharif, a "group of armed people" raided a UNICEF office and "removed every item inside: computers, furniture, radio equipment."

In other cases, it was more clear which side was responsible. Retreating Taliban fighters seized all the relief workers' vehicles in Mazar-e-Sharif, he said. None of the staff members in the office were hurt.

A WFP warehouse was looted over the weekend, though it was unclear who had made off with its 89 tons of supplies.

In another setback to aid efforts, a World Food Program test-run of a barge across the Amu Darya River, which forms the border between Uzbekistan and Afghanistan, failed Monday. The U.N. personnel who were expected to meet the barge on the Afghan side didn't show up.

"They found (the river) to be secure and usable, however our people from Mazar-e-Sharif were not there due to security concerns," said Michael Huggins, a WFP spokesman. "If we don't have the security guarantees, there's no point in opening up a corridor to dump food."

The WFP plans to ship 400 tons of wheat flour by river barge as early as today to warehouses in Hairatan, 10 miles up the Amu Darya River. From there it will be shipped to Mazar-e-Sharif.

"Tens of thousands, if not hundreds of thousands, of hungry Afghans will be receiving this food within the vicinity of Mazar-e-Sharif," Huggins said.

The International Committee of the Red Cross and other relief agencies estimate that as many as 280,000 people may face starvation around Mazar-e-Sharif if food and other supplies are not delivered soon.

_ Information from Knight Ridder was used in this report.