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Aid begins to flow into Afghanistan

The first aid shipment across the Uzbek-Afghan border arrived Wednesday in this Afghan port city, greeted by cheers from the turbaned men lining the banks of the Amu-Darya River.

The barge marked the reopening of a vital aid corridor into northern Afghanistan, allowing passage of critical food and winter supplies to some of the country's hungriest regions.

The border had been closed since 1997, when the Taliban took control of northern Afghanistan. The Northern Alliance recaptured Hairaton on Nov. 8, the same day they took the biggest city in northern Afghanistan, Mazar-e-Sharif.

"The river crossing is the first of what is hoped will become a major humanitarian corridor into northern Afghanistan, where there are an estimated 3-million hungry people," the United Nations said.

Sailing under a blue U.N. flag, the barge delivered 55 tons of wheat flour, 10,000 winter coats, 2,000 blankets, 1,333 pairs of boots and 10,000 collapsible water containers.

As it neared the shore after the 11-mile journey upstream to Hairaton, dozens of men waiting to unload the supplies lined the river bank, applauding and shouting, "Hurrah!"

At the dock, a group of children played with a plastic Kalashnikov rifle as several guards armed with the real things watched supplies being hauled up a wooden ramp.

"There's nothing to eat here, there's no work," said Djiangelti, who was helping with the unloading. "It'd be good if there was some meat or flour."

Another man who also gave one name, Khakhberdi, said now that the Taliban have left, "every day is a holiday in the city."

U.N. officials hope to start sending 17,600 tons of aid a month from Uzbekistan to northern Afghanistan, now mostly in the hands of the anti-Taliban opposition.

The first shipment had been delayed for about a week amid reports of looting and fighting in Mazar-e-Sharif and surrounding areas. The first barge carried just a quarter of the normal planned load of 220 tons.

Michael Huggins, a spokesman for the U.N. World Food Program, said the real test will be the attempt to distribute the aid throughout northern Afghanistan starting today.

Last week the World Food Program signed contracts with 51 nongovernmental organizations to distribute 260,000 tons of food aid until next March.

In a sign of the problems that could lie ahead, the U.N. Children's Fund suspended convoys after some trucks and employees were seized by victorious Northern Alliance fighters during the weekend, Reuters reported.

UNICEF said Wednesday it was checking reports that two drivers from a 10-truck UNICEF aid convoy from Peshawar, Pakistan, that reached Mazar-e-Sharif on Saturday might have been killed.

Hundreds of people were reportedly killed and tons of supplies looted in Mazar-e-Sharif since the fundamentalist Taliban abandoned the city last week.

A man at the port who identified himself as the Northern Alliance's operational commander for Hairaton claimed all was calm in the area.

"The situation in the city of Hairaton, and in general in Balkh province and Mazar-e-Sharif and in the north, is absolutely, totally normal," said Aminular Karim. "There's no trouble."

_ Information from the Associated Press and Washington Post was used in this report.