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First UN aid shipment reaches Iraq

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SILOPI, Turkey (Reuters) - The United Nations says it has sent its first shipment of aid across the Turkish border into Kurdish-controlled northern Iraq since the start of the U.S.-led war against Baghdad.

Two trucks carrying water purification equipment, medicine and educational material for the U.N. children's relief agency UNICEF passed through the Habur border gate in southeastern Turkey. The war entered its 11th day on Sunday.

U.N. officials said $4 million (2.5 million pounds) worth of further supplies would follow in the coming days.

The shipment marked the resumption of aid to northern Iraq under a U.N. "oil-for-food" programme for the country, although oil shipments from Iraq have not been restarted.

On Friday, the U.N. Security Council agreed to tap funds from Iraq's oil revenues for humanitarian supplies.

Some 60 percent of Iraqis have relied on the oil-for-food programme, launched in December 1996, to feed themselves, and fears of a humanitarian crisis because of the war have mounted.

"There is a critical situation in northern Iraq. We are getting reports of lower food stocks and rising fuel prices which makes it tougher to get supplies to the people who need it most," said Michael Bociurkiw, a spokesman for UNICEF.

Bociurkiw said children and pregnant women were especially vulnerable and at risk of malnutrition as hundreds of thousands of people flee their homes in the north during clashes between Iraqi troops and U.S. and Kurdish forces.

The UNICEF shipment had been held up for days as the agency searched for a truck company to provide vehicles amid security concerns in northern Iraq, he said.

"The two trucks in today's convoy are a kind of test case," Bociurkiw told Reuters in the southeastern Turkish town of Silopi.

"We will follow up early this week with a convoy of 40 trucks that will first go to Dohuk and parcel out the material to the cities of Arbil and Suleymaniyah (in northern Iraq)."

Turkey has closed its border gate outside Silopi to trade and other regular traffic and has amassed thousands of troops at the tense frontier amid worries the violence in northern Iraq could spill onto Turkish territory.

The Turkish military also wants to stem any flood of refugees from crossing its borders.

Turkey fears any emergence of an independent Kurdish state in northern Iraq would be a first step to a broader "Kurdistan" claiming parts of Turkey.

Iraqi Kurds fear Turkey might try to crush the autonomy they have enjoyed in northern Iraq since breaking from Baghdad's control after the 1991 Gulf War.

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