Karzai Heads to Japan with Plan to Disarm Warlords
Mon Feb 17, 4:09 AM ET By Sanjeev Miglani
KABUL (Reuters) - Afghan President Hamid Karzai travels to Japan this week with a plan to rid his shattered country of powerful private armies and weapons that remain the biggest challenge to his authority and peace.
The plan, which Karzai will unveil at a conference in Tokyo at the weekend, seeks to demobilize hundreds of thousands of factional fighters before national elections in 2004 by offering them jobs in construction of highways, bridges and dams.
Many others will be absorbed into the Afghan National Army which the United States and France are helping to slowly build.
"By the time we leave for Tokyo we will have a specific work plan which includes a timeframe for the start and end of the demobilization process and the re-integration of ex-combatants," said Tayeb Jawad, Karzai's chief of staff and spokesman.
Japan is the lead nation in Afghanistan's disarmament, demobilization and re-integration program and has pledged to spend millions of dollars this year through the United Nations.
Karzai will meet Prime Minister Junichiro Koizumi and Foreign Minister Yoriko Kawaguchi during his Thursday to Sunday trip.
He visited Japan a year ago for a conference on Afghan reconstruction that secured pledges of $4.5 billion over five years from around the world.
"The invitation signifies Japan's firm intention to continue its assistance for peace and stability in Afghanistan," a Japanese Foreign Ministry statement said in announcing the trip.
Japan has said international support was necessary to help Karzai's fragile transitional administration disarm renegades.
But few in Afghanistan believe the regional warlords, who control much of the country after the fall of the fundamentalist Taliban regime in 2001, will give up arms their easily.
A disarmament program in the north last summer ended up with bigger commanders forcing smaller ones to surrender their arms to them.
"Security in Afghanistan remains fragile," aid agency Care said recently. "Militia commanders have filled the security gap in more than 90 percent of the country."
Karzai's writ is seen restricted to Kabul, which is guarded by a 4,500-strong international peacekeeping force.
But Afghan officials said they will impress upon the international community they were serious about tackling the menace of an estimated eight million guns in circulation after 23 years of conflict.
Jawad said the government would this week name members of a commission on demobilization that would work out the mechanics of disbanding the militia groups and set out a timeframe.
Three other commissions were set up last month to supervise disarmament, reintegration of the militiamen and recruitment and training of the national army.
"We are hoping to be able to complete the demobilization process before the next election which is next summer," he said.
"We are going to give assurance to the international community that Afghanistan is on the right track to build a new country and to create a civil society."
Jawad said the government estimated there were between 100,000 to 150,000 people who needed to be disarmed. Aid agencies have put the number of militiamen at more than 200,000. (Writing by Sanjeev Miglani, editing by Scott McDonald; Reuters Messaging: firstname.lastname@example.org; Kabul Newsroom 873 763-068-789)
After Karzai warning, US military defends action in Afghanistan
Monday February 17, 7:25 PM AFP
The US military sought to defend its actions in Afghanistan after its regional commander met Afghan President Hamid Karzai to explain a recent bombing campaign.
Spokesman Colonel Roger King said General Dan McNeill, the head of US military operations in the central Asian country, had met with Karzai on Saturday to discuss an offensive last week in central Helmand province.
The meeting came as a government delegation departed for Baghran in the north of Helmand to investigate unconfirmed reports that 17 civilians had been killed in a series of US-led bombing raids on suspected Taliban extremists.
According to a presidential spokesman, Karzai warned McNeill that the US military should tread with greater caution in its 15-month old campaign against Taliban and al-Qaeda extremists in Afghanistan.
"General McNeill reaffirmed coalition forces' right of self-defence and pointed out that those forces had entered the (Baghran) valley with the consent of the governor of Helmand," King said.
He added that a delegation from Helmand, also visiting Karzai on Saturday, had reported no sightings of civilian casualties.
The US military has continued to deny reports of non-combatant deaths from what it calls Operation Eagle Fury, which began when US Special Forces were attacked in the Baghran area last Monday.
Danish and US warplanes were called in to pound the area, believed to be a hideout for more than 30 extremists loyal to the former Taliban regime, in sustained raids involving 500 and 2,000 pound bombs.
The US says it has killed an undisclosed number of rebel fighters in the offensive, but has admitted only one civilian casualty: the eight-year old son of one of the opposition fighters. The boy was treated for shrapnel injuries.
King said Monday that the situation in Baghran had been calm since the last air raid on Thursday.
Last week's fighting came only days after the conclusion of another assault on a mountain cave complex near the southern border town of Spin Boldak, which left 18 rebels dead.
Elsewhere in Afghanistan, two rockets struck near a US outpost at Shkin in the border regions of eastern Paktika province early Sunday, but caused no injuries or damage. Similar attacks occur regularly across the country.
And in the central province of Bamiyan, US Special Forces found one AK-47 rifle with ammunition, 14 rocket-propelled grenade rounds and other weaponry during a reconnaissance mission.
US troops, accompanied by a battalion of the newly formed Afghan national army, have been operating for several weeks in Bamiyan, where regional leaders have accused them of exacerbating factional and ethnic tensions.
Taliban leader calls for holy war
Monday February 17, 7:33 PM
ISLAMABAD (Reuters) - An unsigned message purportedly from the leader of Afghanistan's ousted Taliban, Mullah Mohammad Omar, has urged Afghans to wage a holy war against Washington and the Kabul government, an Afghan news service has reported.
The Pakistan-based Afghan Islamic Press on Monday quoted a statement from Omar as saying Afghans who could not participate directly in a jihad, or holy war, should distance themselves from the government of President Hamid Karzai and the United States.
The Pashtu-language statement sent to newspapers in the Pakistani town of Peshawar was the first directly attributed to the reclusive, one-eyed Taliban leader made public since his government was ousted from power in late 2001 following a massive U.S.-led bombing campaign.
Its release comes after the emergence of two audiotape statements purported to be the voice of Mullah Omar's al Qaeda ally Osama bin Laden telling Muslims to fight the United States and saying holy war was the only way to win Muslim rights.
It said a jihad was essential given "atrocities" being committed by the United States against the Afghan people.
"The Afghans should abandon the ranks of America, the crusaders and their allies, and should immediately start a jihad," it said.
"Vacate all offices, ministries, provinces so that the distinction between a Muslim and a crusader is made."
The statement said that if any Afghan failed to distance himself from Karzai's U.S.-backed government, he would be considered an ally of the crusaders and punished according to an edict issued by Islamic scholars.
The statement carried Omar's name and title at the bottom but was not signed and did not mention what the punishment might be.
Afghan government officials have said they believe Mullah Omar may have survived the overthrow of the Taliban but he has not been seen since late 2001.
Mir Jan, deputy head of foreign relations at the Kabul defence ministry, dismissed the call for a jihad. "He has no power and authority for calling a Jihad," he said of Omar.
"HE IS A THUG"
"He himself is a thug, and who will stand by his side? He poses no threat, we are not concerned about him and what he has said is just rhetoric and propaganda."
Thousands of U.S.-led coalition troops have been pursuing Taliban and al Qaeda remnants in Afghanistan since late 2001, but have failed to locate bin Laden or Mullah Omar.
Bin Laden's al Qaeda, which was sheltered by the Taliban in Afghanistan, is blamed for the September 11, 2001, attacks on the United States.
The emergence of the statements has coincided with a state of high alert in the United States and its ally Britain in the lead up to a possible attack on Iraq.
Both countries have said they have concrete information al Qaeda planned a slew of attacks. Attacks blamed on al Qaeda have in the past followed messages from bin Laden.
The purported statement from Mullah Omar, thought to be in his early or mid-40s, comes after coalition aircraft launched repeated strikes last week against suspected Taliban fighters in Afghanistan's southwestern province of Helmand last week.
Officials and villagers there said at least 17 civilians, most women and children, were killed in the raids, but the U.S. military said a boy of eight was the only non-combatant wounded.
Karzai met coalition commander U.S. Lieutenant-General Dan McNeill on Saturday and expressed concern for the safety of civilians in such operations.
Twenty Die as Rains Hit Pakistan, Afghanistan
Mon Feb 17, 1:18 PM ET
KARACHI (Reuters) - Heavy rains and violent winds lashed Pakistan and Afghanistan on Monday, killing at least 20 people, including six children, and injuring more than 100, officials and rescue workers said.
Nine people, including two children, were killed and at least 36 were hurt in three districts of Pakistan's Baluchistan province. On the outskirts of the provincial capital, Quetta, dozens of homes were destroyed when flood waters swept away a small dam.
Officials said seven people were thought to have been killed and 22 were hurt when a passenger bus was swept off a hill 125 miles northwest of Karachi on Monday morning. They said five bodies had been recovered from the flood waters.
Flood waters also swept away three children in southern Afghanistan near the southwestern city of Kandahar and closed the main road linking the city and the Pakistani border.
Local security official Mohammad Afza said the children drowned in the Takhta Pul area near Kandahar.
Pakistani officials said three people died in two separate accidents on the outskirts of the southern port city of Karachi when the roofs of their houses caved in.
Heavy rain and wind ripped the roofs of scores of huts built of straw, mud and wooden planks in two villages 18 to 30 miles north of Karachi, injuring more than 40 people, they added.
One girl was killed and four of her family members injured when their house collapsed in Pakistan-controlled part of Kashmir, police said. In Hyderabad, 100 miles north of Karachi, two people were killed and at least 30 were injured when homes collapsed and another two died in a nearby village when they were struck by lightning, police said.
"We have declared an emergency in Hyderabad, where 80 percent of the neighborhoods are inundated," said Mayor Makhdoom Rafique-uz Zaman.
"Education institutions have been closed for three days and relief work is in full in swing," he said.
Heavy rains have also hit the capital Islamabad in the north and Quetta in the east for the past two days.
Water was knee-deep in Quetta, severely disrupting traffic, and more rains was forecast in coming days.
Avalanche Kills Two in E. Afghanistan
Mon Feb 17,11:56 AM ET AP
JALALABAD, Afghanistan - An avalanche triggered by heavy rains killed two people and injured four others Monday in eastern Afghanistan, a police official said.
The victims were part of a 10-person group walking to Pakistan through a remote corner of the eastern Kunar province, regional police chief Najibullah Gujar said.
The injured were taken to a hospital in Pakistan, about 12 miles away, he said.
In northern Afghanistan, avalanches and heavy snow blocked the Salang Tunnel linking the region to the country's south, Public Works Minister Abdullah Ali said.
In Kabul, the city's international airport reopened Monday after being shut down the day before because of heavy snow.
Afghanistan: Key humanitarian route expected to reopen
ISLAMABAD, 17 February (IRIN) - In Afghanistan, avalanches have blocked the Salang tunnel, the main access route from the capital, Kabul, to northern provinces and the only all-weather direct route between the north and south of the country. The tunnel has been blocked by heavy snow for the past three days, the longest closure this year, thereby severely hampering the movement of people and goods, including humanitarian supplies.
"Our aim is to keep it [the Salang tunnel] open every day. We are trying our best to open it soon," Stephane Nicolas, country director of the French aid agency, ACTED, told IRIN from Kabul on Monday. ACTED has sent experts to Salang, about 150 km north of Kabul, to clear the remaining snow - that could fall and block the route - with controlled explosions.
Built by Soviet engineers and opened in 1964, the Salang tunnel and road system provided the first direct year-round link between Afghanistan's northern and southern regions, which are bisected by the Hindu Kush mountain range. Earlier, goods being transported from the north to Kabul via the western city of Herat had taken about 72 hours to reach their destination. But with the opening of the Salang tunnel, that journey was reduced to less than 10 hours.
Rehabilitated during the Soviet era, the Salang pass soon became the country's economic and military lifeline. With the fall of President Najibullah's government in 1992, and the subsequent emergence of the Taliban in 1994, the Salang once again became the primary route of supply for the Northern Alliance until the fall of Kabul and the loss of the northern city of Mazar-e Sharif.
But following extensive bombing and a deterioration in the road system leading up to it, the tunnel was closed in mid 1990s - effectively isolating each of the two halves of the country. After the fall of the Taliban in late 2001, ACTED, in cooperation with the works ministry, the Halo trust, a group of Russian engineers and the United States Agency for International Development, cleared the tunnel of mines and rubble, and it reopened in February 2002.
According to ACTED, about 1,000 vehicles a day pass through the tunnel, carrying between 6,000 to 8,000 passengers. It is estimated that more than 70 percent of Kabul's fuel supplies pass via this route.
Nicolas maintained that one of ACTED's key interventions at Salang was traffic control, which was being threatened by armed local commanders who wanted to control the traffic as they saw fit. "In the past two weeks, there have been numerous security incidents. Some of them have involved our local staff being beaten by local commanders," he said, adding that the issue was being discussed with all authorities concerned. "Should the security of our staff continue to be jeopardised, ACTED will have no choice but to cease its operations," he warned.
According to Terry Toyota, head of the United Nations Joint Logistic Committee (UNJLC), keeping the tunnel open in Afghanistan's severe winter weather had been a real achievement. "In general, NGOs are doing a good job in keeping the access open," she told IRIN from Kabul.
UNJLC in partnership with many NGOs had contracted about 2,000 Afghans under its cash-for-work projects throughout the country to keep the routes open during the winter. "I think people come to accept that the tunnel might be closed for one or two days, which is a huge difference from past years," she added.
Afghanistan: Three children infected with meningitis
ISLAMABAD, 17 February (IRIN) - Three children in the northern Afghan province of Takhar have contracted the fatal meningitis virus, the World Health Organisation (WHO) confirmed to IRIN on Monday. "We have sent an investigation team to the area comprising of doctors from the Afghan Ministry of Health and the Swedish Committee for Afghanistan," Asadullah Taqdeer, the national emergency preparedness and response officer for WHO in the capital, Kabul, said.
A helicopter mission was sent to the Chahab district in the province on 12 February, where the three cases were identified along with two cases of pneumonia. Doctors with the WHO-supported team could not confirm any related deaths and believed that they are isolated cases. Taqdeer said the local clinic had been supplied with medicine to treat the patients, and the situation would be monitored for the next fortnight.
Meningitis is an infection within the fluid of the spinal cord and the fluid that surrounds the brain. It is usually caused by a viral or bacterial infection. Children are particularly vulnerable to it.
Viral meningitis is generally less severe and resolves itself without specific treatment, but bacterial meningitis is more virulent and may result in brain damage, hearing loss, or learning disability. Antibiotics can prevent some types of bacterial meningitis from spreading and infecting other people.
There were fears of an outbreak of meningitis following media reports that six children had died from the disease in Chahab. However, this was said to be inaccurate. Taqdeer said another team of health experts was dispatched to the area on Sunday and would report back on the situation this week.
Wrecked Kabul Museum on Road to Recovery
By THE ASSOCIATED PRESS
KABUL, Afghanistan (AP) The Kabul Museum, ravaged by war and by the Taliban who destroyed its artifacts, including small Buddhas and other statues, has taken the first steps to recovery.
The museum was wrecked during the civil war in the 1990s, and rival Islamic groups emptied it of most of its artifacts. The former Taliban regime destroyed the rest in early 2001 in the belief that the images were idolatrous or offensive to Islam. The Taliban also blew up two towering Buddhas in Bamiyan, 60 miles west of the capital.
With help from Britain, the Kabul Museum has started to renovate several rooms, said Omara Khan Masoudi, museums director at the ministry of information and culture.
The work is being done with the help of the British Museum in London, the British Embassy in Kabul and British peacekeepers in the 4,000-strong multinational force that patrols the city, he said.
Workers have been piecing together ancient statues and other objects that have been in storage, he said.
``We're restoring the artifacts, but it's a long process,'' Masoudi said. He said he hoped the museum could be open by year's end.
The two-story building's entire top floor is missing except for windowless outer walls. The first floor is a wreck of tangled wires and bare light bulbs hanging from the ceiling.
The only piece of art still visible is a large marble basin made in the southern city of Kandahar in the 15th century.
The new restoration room, brightened with a fresh coat of yellow paint, stands in stark contrast to the dark interior of the rest of the building.
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