By Sayed Salahuddin
KABUL (Reuters) - Afghanistan's Taliban extended its deadline for a deal for the release of a French hostage until after Sunday's French presidential election, as three suicide bombers attacked U.S. and Afghan forces in the south.
The Taliban leadership council had put off Saturday's deadline as a sign of mercy, Taliban spokesman Qari Mohammad Yousuf said by phone from an undisclosed location.
"We have extended it (the ultimatum) until the elections are over," Yousuf said.
Aid worker Eric Damfreville and three Afghan colleagues would be freed if at least one of the Taliban's demands were met, he said, but added the Taliban had heard nothing from authorities seeking the aid workers' release.
Afghan police said two of their officers were killed when a suicide bomber rammed a car into their vehicle in Helmand province.
And a witness said two foreign soldiers were killed in a bombing in Paktika province, although the U.S. military said the only casualty was a wounded soldier.
The Taliban and their allies are largely active in southern and eastern regions close to the border with Pakistan and have vowed this year to step up their suicide attacks against Western troops and President Hamid Karzai's government.
NO HOSTAGE TALKS?
Saturday had marked the second deadline from the Taliban, who last month abducted two French aid workers and three Afghans working for Terre d'Enfance, an agency helping children in southwestern Afghanistan.
A French woman, Celine Cordelier, was released late last month in what the Taliban said was a humanitarian gesture.
The militants have demanded the withdrawal of French forces from Afghanistan and the release of jailed Taliban by the Afghan government.
"Our reaction is clear, we may kill him," Yousuf said, when asked what would happen if none of the Taliban demands were met.
Karzai said this week efforts were under way to secure the release of the French man, after calls from French President Jacques Chirac for him to intervene.
The French Foreign Ministry said on Saturday it had taken note of the communique on the hostages by the Taliban spokesman but would not be making any comment.
The five were kidnapped in the southeastern province of Nimroz, between Iran and Afghanistan's opium centre of Helmand.
Italian journalist Daniele Mastrogiacomo, kidnapped last month, was freed when Kabul released five Taliban prisoners in a deal that diplomats predicted would encourage the Taliban to take more hostages.
His Afghan driver was beheaded in front of him before his release and his translator was later beheaded when the Afghan government refused to free more Taliban.
The Taliban are also holding five Afghan health workers and have threatened to kill one soon unless the government starts peace talks.
A coalition soldier was injured in southeastern Paktika province when a suicide bomber in a red truck set off his bomb as a military convoy went past, a U.S. military spokesman said.
An Afghan civilian wounded in the attack said he saw the bodies of two dead Western soldiers at the scene.
In neighboring Paktia province, a bomber on foot triggered
explosives attached to his waistcoat as an Afghan army convoy passed, said another Taliban spokesman, who said the group carried out all three attacks.
An Afghan army officer in the region said he heard of the attack, but had no details.
Afghanistan saw its bloodiest period last year since coalition forces overthrew Taliban's government in 2001 and this year is seen as crunch year for all sides of the conflict.
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U.S. convoy, Afghan police hit by two suicide bombs
Sat May 5, 4:54 AM ET
KABUL (Reuters) - A suicide bomber attacked a convoy of U.S.-led troops in southeastern Afghanistan on Saturday and two Afghan police were killed in a similar attack, witnesses and police said.
U.S. troops cordoned off the road where the convoy was attacked in Paktika province, which borders Pakistan, and it was unclear if there were any casualties, witnesses said.
A spokesman for the U.S. military said he was not aware of an attack in the area.
The two police were killed when a suicide bomber rammed a car into their vehicle in the southern province of Helmand, police in the area said.
A car was also used in the attack in Paktika, part of a rising tide of violence in recent weeks after the traditional winter lull.
Taliban members were behind the two attacks and also of another one that targeted a convoy of Afghan army in neighboring Paktia province, a spokesman for the group said.
An Afghan army officer in the region said he had heard of an attack on the convoy, but had no details.
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Afghan, foreign troops set counter-insurgency training
Sat May 5, 4:29 AM ET
KABUL (Reuters) - Afghan and foreign forces will this month train together for the first time in counter-insurgency techniques, the U.S. military said on Saturday, as pressure rises over civilian deaths at the hands of Western troops.
A new Afghan counter-insurgency academy, set up nearly six years after U.S.-led forces toppled the Taliban, will train about 100 soldiers and police from Afghanistan and the U.S.-led coalition at its inaugural course in Kabul, the coalition said.
"This academy will change how coalition forces think and plan operations with an appreciation of the cultural environment in Afghanistan," Major-General Robert E. Durbin, the head of the U.S.-led coalition force, said in a statement.
"We need to understand how our actions here affect the civilians in Afghanistan."
Afghan authorities say 70 civilians have been killed by Western forces in recent days, and President Hamid Karzai has warned of serious consequences for all if the bloodshed continued.
NATO, which leads the International Security Assistance Force that works alongside the U.S.-led coalition, pledged this week to improve co-ordination with Afghan authorities to cut civilian casualties.
A U.S. military spokesman said U.S. troops had undergone cultural training in the past but this course, planned for some time, was the first joint counter-insurgency training.
Afghan protesters called this week for the removal of Karzai for failing to stop the civilian killings, which have come amid an upsurge in violence as the Western-backed government and the Taliban seek a decisive advantage in the battle for the country.
While protests over civilian casualties have been small, government officials, NATO and analysts all warn that a steady stream of civilian deaths will erode support for Karzai and the war against the Taliban, who were driven from power in 2001.
Afghan officials say 51 civilians were killed by foreign troops in the past week in the western province of Herat, an area not known as a Taliban stronghold.
Afghans also complain that Western troops are heavy handed in their approach to locals and insult the modesty of Afghan women by bursting in to search homes without warning.
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Afghanistan parliament gets IPU membership
Saturday May 05, 2007 (0339 PST) PakTribune.com, Pakistan
KABUL: Afghanistan became a member of the Inter-Parliamentary Union (IPU) in its 116th assembly held in Jakarta, the capital of Indonesia.
The assembly held Jakarta, in Jakarta admitted Afghanistan as 149th member of the Union, said a press release issued by the Upper House of Parliament. A 16-member delegation of Afghan Parliament attended the assembly.
Meshrano Jirga Chairman Hazrat Sibghatullah Mujaddedi delivered a speech to the assembly of the IPU, established in 1889,
Parliamentarians view Afghanistan's membership of the IPU an important step, with Shukria Barakzai saying Afghanistan's membership of any union would help revive its freedom and identity.
She added: "IPU is a platform involving so many parliaments. But looking at its present capacity, Afghan Parliament could reap few gains from this membership."
Qaderia Ibrahim Yazdan Parast, another parliamentarian, said: "It is a good sign that the Afghan legislature has become part of the IPU." Sharing experiences of other parliaments, she remarked, Afghan legislators will be able to make useful decisions on issues of public interest."
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Spain rules out sending more troops in Afghanistan
MADRID, May 4, 2007 (AFP) - Spain will not send more troops to Afghanistan to reinforce the 700 soldiers it already has deployed in the NATO-led force in the country, Defence Minister Jose Antonio Alonso said Friday.
"We do not plan to augment our troops and it is not necessary," he told a joint news conference with his visiting Portuguese counterpart Nuno Severiano Teixeira.
Spain will, however, send two teams of some 50 soldiers to Afghanistan at the end of May or in early June to help train the Afghan military, he said.
The minister was reacting to comments made by a Spanish military commander in Afghanistan who said Thursday that Madrid should send reinforcements to the west of the country to help put out growing Taliban violence there.
"The greater the military presence, the easier it will be to guarantee security," Colonel Miguel Garcia de las Hijas, chief of general staff of the NATO-led International Security Assistance Forces (ISAF) in western Afghanistan, told daily newspaper El Pais.
Afghanistan's western province of Herat near the border with Iran, where ISAF has stationed Spanish and Italian troops, had been relatively calm until recently, compared to the south and east, but in recent weeks Taliban militants have become more active in the region.
The fundamentalist Taliban sheltered Al-Qaeda chief Osama bin Laden and were ousted by US-led forces in 2001 after the September 11 attacks on the United States but have since regrouped to lead a bloody insurgency.
ISAF has about 37,000 troops in Afghanistan that are supporting the government of President Hamid Karzai. Separately, there are also around 11,000 US-led troops in Afghanistan.
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Japanese Defense Minister discusses cooperation with NATO
People's Daily Online
Japanese Defense Minister Fumio Kyuma visited the NATO Headquarters on Friday, aiming to deepen cooperation between Japan and the global top military alliance.
According to NATO's website, Kyuma met with NATO Secretary General Jaap de Hoop Scheffer, and they discussed a wide range of security issues relevant to NATO and Japan, including the Alliance 's transformation and NATO's ISAF operation in Afghanistan.
"They agreed that Japan and NATO should continue working together to meet common objectives," said the press release issued by the NATO headquarters.
The NATO chief thanked Kyuma for Japan's contribution to the Alliance's stabilization efforts in Afghanistan and in particular for Japan's readiness to provide humanitarian assistance in support of NATO-led Provincial Reconstruction Teams, said the press release.
Japan is the country in Asia with which NATO has the longest- standing relationship. In recent years, the two have deepened their relations. Earlier this year, Japanese Prime Minister Shinzo Abe made a historic visit to the NATO headquarters.
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Afghan president visits mass grave
Fri May 4, 12:19 AM ET
KABUL (AFP) - President Hamid Karzai attended a memorial service at the site of a mass grave of more than 400 Afghans killed in the communist era, saying afterwards one "tyrant" had been replaced by another.
Karzai and senior members of his government laid a foundation stone for a monument to be built at the grave discovered near the Qorogh desert in the remote northeastern province of Badakshan last month.
Rosary beads, pens, notebooks, barbed wire, chains, shackles, hand cuffs and shoes were found at the site of the grave, the president's office said in a statement announcing Karzai's Thursday trip.
Those buried in the grave were "murdered because of the Soviet invasion and internal treason," Karzai said in the statement.
The Soviets occupied Afghanistan from 1979 to 1989 but communism was only defeated in 1992, when a savage civil war erupted between the men who led the fight against the occupiers.
"One tyrant is gone, another has come," Karzai said. "Today, our people are still suffering at the hands of foreigners who are abetted by internal treason," he added, referring to a growing insurgency by the Taliban movement.
"Afghanistan will only achieve sustainable peace when the Afghan people chop off the hands of foreigners who meddle in our internal affairs."
Karzai and other prominent figures have alleged the Taliban are being assisted by fundamentalist elements based across the border in Pakistan, one of only three nations that recognised the 1996-2001 Taliban government.
Karzai has allocated five million afghani (about 100,000 dollars) for the construction of a memorial monument, a mosque and a museum at the site of the grave, the statement said.
Most of the victims appear to have been civilians killed for opposing the Moscow-backed communist regime, an official said last month.
The grave was discovered weeks after the Afghan parliament passed a reconciliation law granting amnesty to those behind the decades of atrocities, including during the communist regime.
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Afghan council accuses US forces
Friday, 4 May 2007, 17:18 GMT 18:18 UK BBC News
An Afghan tribal council investigating the deaths of at least 13 civilians in Kandahar province says air strikes by US-led forces were to blame.
Officials say the deaths on Tuesday night in Maroof district bring the number of civilians killed this week across the country to around 70 people.
A US spokesman denied any air strikes had taken place in Maroof.
On Thursday, Nato vowed to improve coordination with the Afghan authorities to avoid civilian deaths.
"There were no bombs drops at the place and at the time alleged," the spokesman told the BBC News website.
Earlier, provincial assembly member Janan Gulzai told the BBC Pashto service that he personally saw the dead civilians near the border with Pakistan.
And in comments to the AFP news agency Mr Gulzai said: "We cannot accept the killing of Afghan civilians by anyone."
Mr Gulzai was a member of a provincial tribal council - or jirga - that investigated the incident.
It concluded that those killed were travelling in three cars along the same stretch of road as coalition troops near the town of Spin Boldak when the troops came under Taleban fire.
The 13 civilians were killed when coalition warplanes were summoned to bomb the area while the Taleban escaped, it said.
There have been protests across the country throughout the week staged by people angry over civilian deaths in the western province of Herat and in the east.
Many of the demonstrators called on President Hamid Karzai to resign.
Correspondents say that while the protests over civilian casualties have mostly been small, a steady stream of civilian deaths will inevitably erode support for the president and the war against the Taleban, who were driven from power in 2001.
The majority of the civilians reported killed this week - around 50 - died in heavy fighting in western Afghanistan between US-led troops and militants.
President Hamid Karzai warned afterwards that his people were losing patience over the continuing bloodshed.
The president is already facing criticism over a lack of development, widespread corruption and this year's rise in violence.
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Germany turns down Afghanistan request
Germany has turned down an Afghan request to send 19 military instructors to southern Afghanistan. A defence ministry spokesman in Berlin said the Bundeswehr's mandate authorised German troops to venture beyond their area of operation in the north of the country in exceptional circumstances only. Germany has about 3,000 troops stationed in Afghanistan as part of the NATO-led International Security Assistance Force. Six German Tornado surveillance jets are also there, carrying out reconnaissance missions in support of NATO-led troops fighting against Taliban insurgents.
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Austrian, Afghan FMs arrive in Kuwait
5 May 2007 | 12:53 | FOCUS News Agency Bulgaria
Kuna. Austrian Foreign Minister Ursula Plassnik arrived in Kuwait at dawn Saturday on a three-day visit during which she would hold talks with the Kuwaiti leadership on bilateral relations.
The Austrian minister is set to meet with Deputy Prime Minister and Foreign Minister Sheikh Dr. Mohammad Sabah Al-Salem Al-Sabah later today to discuss issues of mutual concern.
Meanwhile, Afghan Foreign Minister Rangin Dadfar Spanta arrived in Kuwait late Friday night, also on a three-day visit aimed at boosting bilateral relations.
Spanta will hold talks with the Kuwaiti foreign minister tonight, and the two sides will discuss regional and international political issues.
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UK not leading Afghan drug fight
Friday, 4 May 2007 BBC News
The UK is no longer the "lead nation" in combating the Afghanistan drugs trade, the foreign secretary has said.
Margaret Beckett told Parliament the UK - designated "lead nation" in 2001 - had become Afghanistan's "partner nation" in fighting drugs last year.
The Tories accused ministers of "surreptitiously downgrading" the UK's responsibilities.
But the Foreign Office insisted the change was "technical", and that the UK's role had not changed since 2001.
Southern Afghanistan, where British troops are fighting the Taleban, is the source of much of the world's heroin.
Afghan poppy farmers extract opium from their harvests, which is taken out of the country and processed into heroin to be sold, mainly in Western countries.
Mrs Beckett, answering a written question from shadow foreign secretary William Hague, explained that the change had happened last year.
"The UK took on lead G8 responsibility for counter narcotics following the Bonn Agreement in 2001," she said in a written answer.
"In 2006 it was agreed that the concept of 'lead nation' was redundant, as the Afghan government now had lead responsibility for all aspects of security sector reform."
She said the government had pledged £270 million over three years to support the Afghan government's fight against drugs.
But Mr Hague labelled the move "astonishing".
"This was supposed to be one of the government's most important responsibilities overseas," he said.
"But apart from a few officials at the Foreign Office, no-one else seems to have been aware of the change."
The Foreign Office says the UK helps and advises the Afghans on initiatives including crop eradication, rebuilding infrastructure and stopping drug-traffickers.
Official figures show that opium production in Afghanistan rose by 49% between 2005 and 2006.
In total, 6,700 tons was produced last year - enough to make about 670 tons of heroin, accounting for about 90% of the world's supply of the drug.
The UN has warned that it could take a generation to eradicate the illegal trade.
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Veteran adviser says Afghans need own solution
Fri May 4, 2007 10:28AM EDT By Rodney Joyce
KABUL (Reuters)-Afghanistan must find its own political path and foreign troops, who are losing the trust of the public, should soon leave the country, a veteran adviser to Afghan governments for four decades said on Friday.
Speaking after a week in which Afghan officials said 70 civilians had been killed by Western troops, Hamidullah Tarzi, a former finance minister, said the bloodshed and widespread poverty despite billions in aid was eroding support for a government seen as not in control of its own country.
"To the ordinary man, the feeling now is that Afghanistan is being occupied," Tarzi told Reuters in an interview.
"The sooner they leave, the better it is," he said, adding that he favored a gradual withdrawal by foreign troops, not a sudden exit.
Tarzi, 67, has a straggly beard and long grey locks, but his is no radical anti-American voice. He is an economics professor from a family that has advised governments in Afghanistan for five or more generations.
There is a twinkle in his eye when he recalls studying at the University of California, Berkeley, in the 1960s, and much of his family live in America.
He has survived every political twist in three decades of civil war to serve governments ranging from the communists to the Taliban because he is seen as a non-partisan technocrat in a land short of financial experts. The Taliban government did throw him in detention for a month, though.
Now an honorary adviser to President Hamid Karzai's government, Tarzi lives alone in a rundown flat in Kabul, without the heavily armed guards and blast walls topped by razor wire that surround government leaders and Westerners in the city.
CALL FOR CHANGE
Tarzi says the Americans were welcomed as the bringers of a new era of freedom when they deposed the Taliban in 2001 but it was now time to reach out to all sides in the fighting.
"The Talibans are Afghans, they are our citizens, we should try to come to terms with them," he said.
"Why in our country do we name our own citizen as the enemy?"
Karzai has pushed the Taliban to put down their arms and join the political dialogue, and a few have, but Tarzi said others feared arrest as long as the president was perceived to be in the pocket of the West.
Tarzi's call for an Afghan political solution extends to regional warlords currently in government, a frequent bone of contention with Western critics.
"So what, let them be there and slowly they will be integrated within the whole political family and that is a good thing," he said, while acknowledging that Afghanistan's turbulent history of factional fighting meant running its own affairs would not be easy.
The rising number of accidental deaths of Afghans at the hands of Western troops, along with rampant corruption and a lack of progress in rebuilding the country, is contributing to an increasing pessimism among diplomats, journalists and businessmen spoken to by Reuters in Kabul this week.
DROP BY DROP
Even before Afghan officials said U.S.-led troops had killed 51 civilians in the western province of Herat over the past week, many doubted U.S. military reports of 136 Taliban deaths in a relatively peaceful area not known as a rebel stronghold.
"It's infectious, this kind of mistrust and bad feelings," Tarzi said.
"Drop by drop a river is formed so I think one should pay very close attention to that."
Karzai called Western representatives into a meeting this week and demanded greater consultation over military operations to cut the number of "friendly fire" deaths, warning of serious consequences for all if the bloodshed continued.
But the president also faced calls to quit at demonstrations over civilian deaths, and Tarzi said the formation of a new political party, including some senior government figures, meant the president now faced problems on many fronts.
"He's a gentleman that is alone and now he's being more and more secluded because an opposition has been formed recently and he's in a very difficult position."
Some may dismiss Tarzi's views, because he is an adviser to one of the rebels behind the new party, but he stressed his respect for Karzai and predicted the president would serve out his term to 2009 for want of any alternative acceptable to the West.
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The Afghan village that uses opium as its currency
By Chris Sands in Badakhshan, Afghanistan
The Independent (UK) 04 May 2007
Paper money has all but disappeared from the village of Shahran-e-Khash. Instead the common currency is the one resource Afghanistan has no shortage of - opium.
At the market in this remote north-eastern corner of Afghanistan, five litres of engine oil - worth around £5 - can be bought for 100g of opium. Two bottles of Coca-Cola will set you back 18g. Even the children use opium to buy goods.
"All the children put a little bit of opium on a leaf as payment. They ask the shopkeeper, 'Please give me a pen, give me two notebooks, give me two biscuits and three pieces of chewing gum'," explained Shahran Pur, a tribal elder.
Afghanistan is the world's largest producer of opium and the drugs trade has become a major headache for President Hamid Karzai and his Nato allies. While poppy farming often helps fund the Taliban-led insurgency, officials are acutely aware of how important it also is to the general population. Nowhere is this more apparent than in Shahran-e-Khash, a remote village two hours from Faizabad, the capital of the relatively peaceful province of Badakhshan.
Its entire economy is built around opium, with everyone from children to the local hardware store owner dealing in the drug. People here are so poor they frequently don't have the money to buy basic household goods. Instead, they use the poppies they grow in the surrounding fields to purchase what they need.
If the poppy is not in season the shopkeeper will keep a record in a ledger of the items people have taken and the debts are paid off after the harvest. When he finally has the drug, he sells it to a third party who comes from outside the area. The money he makes from this transaction is then used to replenish his stock.
Khan Agha, 30, who runs a fabric store, said: "Yes, my trade is based on the poppy. If they were not cultivated here everyone would move, especially me.
"We weigh the opium and it has a specific price. The fabric also has its specific price; we deal with it that way. After I collect the opium I will put it into packets according to weight, then a customer comes who buys it wholesale. I sell it to them for cash and then go to Kabul or Faizabad to get the fabric for my shop."
Shahran-e-Khash is situated in the district of Khash and many villages in the area are equally dependent upon opium. The poppies are planted in March and commonly harvested during August or September. Unlike other parts of Afghanistan, harvest usually only comes once a year because of the cold.
Residents are adamant there is not a single drug addict among the local population. They also claim they have no contact with the people involved further down the smuggling chain.
Shahran Pur, the tribal elder, asked that his real name not be published in this article. He told The Independent: "It's the same system as if someone grows potatoes or onions and takes them to the market. The shopkeeper will buy it and then he will sell it to other customers.
"You will see a young man coming here on his motorbike who will need 7kg of opium from the shopkeeper. He might have travelled from very far, for example Faizabad, and he can also put bread on the table just because of this work. But the real mafia involved, we don't know where they are."
Afghanistan accounts for more than 90 per cent of the world's opium supply and according to the United Nations Office on Drugs and Crime (UNODC) cultivation in 2006 rose by 59 per cent on the previous year.
The Afghan government's intermittent attempts at curbing the trade are often met with resistance. Even the International Security Assistance Force (Isaf) recently aired a radio advert in the southern province of Helmand saying it was acceptable to produce opium. The ad was withdrawn after complaints from Kabul.
Cultivation in Badakhshan increased by 77 per cent last year and the people of Shahran-e-Khash said they have been offered no real alternative. "Let me tell you, every member of our tribe, everyone, is aware of how bad this is. We know what sort of crimes might be committed because of these drugs. We feel guilty for doing this and we accept that we partly share in those crimes," Shahran Pur said.
"If the government came to us and gave us food for three months we would try to spend the other nine months with an empty stomach and we would stop cultivating this."
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Afghanistan: Returning Afghan experts join national reconstruction effort
Source: International Organization for Migration (IOM) May 4, 2007
The first three Afghan experts were recruited from EU countries under the Professional Afghan Expatriate Programme - EU (PAEP-EU) for placement into senior public sector jobs in Kabul this week.
The three will serve as Senior Advisor at the Ministry of Counter Narcotics; Communications Officer for the Afghan National Development Strategy; and Management and Cooperative Advisor at the Ministry of Agriculture and Irrigation, respectively.
The PAEP-EU programme is administered by IOM in close coordination with the Afghan Independent Administrative Reform and Civil Service Commission (IARCSC) and funded by the European Commission.
Its objective is to contribute to the long-term stability and development of the country through the deployment of 17 highly qualified Afghan expatriates living in EU member states who will share their skills and expertise in various ministries and public institutions during their assignments of up to one year in Afghanistan.
Communications Officer Hamed Ahmad Eqbal is an established journalist with years of professional experience in the UK. "Journalism in Afghanistan is still at the preliminary stage. I would like to establish a code of conduct for reporters, enrich the quality of broadcasting and thus ultimately contribute to the development of our country," he says.
The programme tries to bring in expertise that Afghan ministries and other public institutions need but which cannot be sourced locally.
The PAEP-EU builds on the achievements of IOM's earlier EU-Return of Qualified Afghans programme which facilitated the progressive transfer of knowledge of 150 Afghan expatriate professionals from nine EU countries during 2003 - 2005.
Additional PAEP-EU candidates will be identified and confirmed by the end of May.
For further information, please visit http://www.paep-eu.org or contact Althea Rivas. IOM Kabul, Tel + 93 (0) 700 486 728, email email@example.com or Katsui Kaya, Tel. +93 (0) 700 185 961, email firstname.lastname@example.org.
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Good news in Afghanistan
The Ottawa Citizen editorial, Friday, May 04, 2007
There is some good news out of Afghanistan about lives saved and hope regained. Despite the many problems that continue to make life a struggle in that country, mothers and babies are healthier than they were before the NATO intervention.
Any comparison with the Taliban era sets a low bar, of course. In those days, women had little access to doctors. If they managed to get appointments, the doctors might never actually examine them. It isn't easy to get a physical from behind a burqa.
Maternal and infant mortality are among the most important measures of development in any country. Where basic health services do not exist or are allocated in a discriminatory manner, mothers and babies die preventable deaths.
According to a Johns Hopkins University study, the infant mortality rate six years ago was 165 per 1,000 live births. Last year, the infant mortality rate was 135 per 1,000 births. In other words, fewer babies are dying each year in post-Taliban Afghanistan.
The number is still high. By comparison, Canada has an infant mortality rate of fewer than five deaths per 1,000 live births. Afghans have many challenges, but at least 20 per cent of pregnant women today are attended by skilled health workers compared with five per cent in 2003.
The fact that women are getting healthier in Afghanistan is a sign that women are also gaining more freedom. Things are getting better there -- not quickly enough by anyone's measure, but they are getting better. This study discredits any argument that under the Taliban there was at least order and stability. There's no justification for a regime that watched dispassionately as babies, and often their mothers, died in delivery.
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AG warns of quitting over meddling in his domain
TALOQAN, May 3 (Pajhwok Afghan News): Attorney-General Abdul Jabbar Sabit Thursday warned of standing down if high-ranking governmental officials did not stop meddling in his domain.
At a news conference in this city, Abdul Jabbar accused a number of senior government figures of involvement in administrative corruption. Without naming anyone, he alleged they did not want to crack down on graft.
The attorney general arrived here on his 11th routine official visit to the province to inspect government offices and ensure enforcement of the law eliminating corruption.
A number of officials wanted to create obstacles in his way. "Until I have not read out applications of all the people, I would not leave Takhar," he promised.
The attorney-general has found 200 officials involved in corruption, most of them facing trials, as other cases of fund misappropriation are being scrutinised.
Abdul Matin Sarfaraz
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Key Taliban commanders killed in Herat operation
KANDAHAR CITY, May 3 (Pajhwok Afghan News): Important Taliban commanders were among more than 130 people killed in a recent counter-insurgency operation in the western Herat province, insiders confided to Pajhwok Afghan News on Thursday.
A key commander released recently along with four others in exchange for Italian journalist Daniele Mastrogiacomo died in the Zerkoh raid, which also left over 50 civilians dead, touched off furious protests and prompted President Hamid Karzai to warn foreign troops against collateral damage.
The much-criticised prisoner swap resulted in the release of Ustad Yasir, Mufti Latifullah Hakimi, Mansoor Ahmad, Hamdullah and Mullah Ghaffar.
Tribal elders and Taliban said three militant commanders, including one freed as a result of the prisoner exchange were killed in the Herat operations, jointly conducted by Afghan and Coalition forces.
Haji Abdul Hakim, a Taliban commander in Greshk district of the southern Helmand province, revealed Mullah Ghaffar, Mullah Jan and Mullah Janan perished in the Herat clashes.
Mullah Ahmadullah, a Taliban commander in Marja district, said Mullah Ghaffar was laid to rest in Nawzad and Mullah Lal Jan in Khan Nishin district of Helmand on Wednesday.
Haji Muhammad Wazir, a tribal elder from Marja, confirmed six dead bodies including those of the commanders had been brought to Helmand from Shindand in Herat.
Brig Gen Nabi Jan Mullahkhel also said the dead bodies had been brought to Helmand, but stopped short of giving more details.
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Ustad Farid laid to rest amid touching scenes
KABUL, May 3 (Pajhwok Afghan News): Former Afghan prime minister and renowned jihadi commander Ustad Haji Abdul Saboor Farid was laid to rest in his ancestral graveyard in Kohistan district of the central Kapisa province on Thursday.
Touching scenes were in evidence as the senator - assassinated by unidentified gunmen in front of his residence in Kabul Wednesday evening - was buried in his hometown at 3pm, with thousands of people participating in his last rites.
Paying glowing tributes to the former commander of Hezb-i-Islami Afghanistan (HIA) led by Gulbadin Hekmatyar, mourners shouted slogans against the US, Britain and the government of President Hamid Karzai.
Holding the rulers responsible for the slaying of Ustad Farid, they accused the authorities of failing to maintain security even in the capital, where the widely respected man was the second lawmaker to be gunned down in recent months.
Senate Chairman Hazrat Sibghatullah Mujaddedi, ministers for interior and refugee affairs, lawmakers and elders from several provinces attended the funeral for Ustad Farid - born in 1961 in Chashma Allah Dad area. He spent a good part of his life fighting the Russians and their supporters.
As the legislator's casket was carried from Khairkhana to his native village in Kohistan district, a large number of followers including students - holding black flags - stood on either side of the road to express their grief over the death of the ex-teacher.
Hugely popular with the masses because of his simple lifestyle and common touch that many commanders envy, Ustad Farid lived in Pakistan and Iran after the 1978 coup. However, he returned home after a couple of years.
A key commander of the HIA, Ustad Farid joined the Northern Alliance - led by Ahmad Shah Masood - when Taliban came to power. With the motive behind his murder still shrouded in mystery, police have not yet arrested any suspect.
Wednesday evening, eyewitnesses and residents said they heard three gunshots fired moments after the senator walked out of his Khairkhana residence to offer Maghreb prayers in a nearby mosque.
Ustad Farid was rushed to the main Khairkhana hospital at about 7.45pm (local time) by his son Abdul Tayyeb, but doctors pronounced him dead. At least one bullet pierced through his left shoulder, a doctor said.
First Secretary to Senate Aminuddin Muzaffari hailed Ustad Farid as a great jihadi leader, who always fought the enemies of Afghanistan and Islam.
"If security forces had provided protection to legislators, such a heart-rending incident could have been averted," he said, regretting a series of requests from legislators for their security were ignored by police authorities.
Last year, Wolesi Jirga member from Samangan Maulvi Muhammad Islam was gunned down on his way to a Kabul mosque to offer Friday prayers.
Reported by Zubair Babakarkhel
Translated & edited by S. Mudassir Ali Shah
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Religious freedom in Afghanistan under US scanner
NEW YORK, May 3 (Pajhwok Afghan News): A US agency Wednesday asked the Bush Administration to place Afghanistan on the watch list of countries with deteriorating religious freedom.
Bangladesh is another South Asian country to be placed on the watch list while Pakistan has been recommended to be designated as the Country of Particular Concern or CPC for the year 2007, according to an annual report released by the US Commission on International Religious Freedom.
In all 11 countries have been designated as CPC by the Commission as per a mandate of the Congress, which means that religious freedom has worsened in Burma, North Korea, Eritrea, Iran, Pakistan, China, Saudi Arabia, Sudan, Turkmenistan, Uzbekistan, and Vietnam.
Afghanistan, where the former Taliban regime was once designated as a particularly severe violator of religious freedom, was added to the US Commissions Watch List last year, joining Belarus, Egypt, Bangladesh, Cuba, Indonesia, and Nigeria.
Iraq is a new addition to this list, said the Commission in a letter to the Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice. In the 290-page report, the Commission has pointed out flaws in the Afghan constitution for restrictions on religious freedom. The present constitution does not contain clear protection for the rights to freedom of religion, it said.
Further, the inability of the Afghan government to exercise authority effectively outside Kabul contributes to a progressively deteriorating situation for religious freedom and the other human rights in many of the provinces, the report said.
The Commission urged the Bush administration to provide greater leadership and resources needed to secure freedom for all in Afghanistan, which regrettably appears to be reverting more and more to Taliban-like practices.
The US government should therefore step up its leadership and engagement in Afghanistan to preserve and consolidate the Afghan peoples gains in the protection of human rights, since the United States has been so directly involved in the countrys political reconstruction.
"Failure will leave Afghanistan not only less free but also more unstable, thereby contributing to regional insecurity and potentially serving again as a future haven for global terrorism that threatens US interests, the report said.
Lalit K. Jha
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Rights group slams curbs on reporting in Afghanistan
NEW YORK, May 3 (Pajhwok Afghan News): An influential rights watchdog has underlined the need for effective global action for the protection of journalists and press freedom, particularly in war zones like Afghanistan and Iraq.
"In Afghanistan, the deteriorating security situation has made intimidation, harassment and violence an everyday reality for Afghan journalists and human rights defenders," the group said in a report marking the World Press Freedom Day.
Amnesty International condemned the recent killing of Afghan journalist Ajmal Naqshbandi - abducted last month along with Italian reporter Daniele Mastrogiacomo and their Afghan driver Syed Agha.
As a result of a much-maligned prisoner swap, Daniele Mastrogiacomo and five senior Taliban figures were released. But Ajmal Naqshbandi and Syed Agha were decapitated by their captors after the government declined to free more militants in exchange for them.
The leading rights organisation voiced concern at attempts by the Afghan government and parliament to abridge reporting that would reflect badly on them.
Amnesty went on to cite a June 2006 decree, issued by the National Security Directorate, to discourage reporting on the deteriorating security situation in the country - particularly in southern and eastern zones where a Taliban-led insurgency has left many dead and injured.
"The Afghan government and parliament have since late 2006 been discussing revising a media law that would seriously undermine freedom of speech and media in Afghanistan," said the report posted on the Amnesty website.
According to the International Federation of Journalists (AFJ), killings of reporters and media staff reached historic levels in 2006, a year that saw 155 murders, assassinations and unexplained deaths of media-people.
The report also referred to the December 23 UN Security Council resolution denouncing intentional attacks against journalists, media professionals and associated personnel in situations of armed conflict and calling upon all parties to put an end to such practices.
"However, around the world, whether in war or in peace, too few states take their obligations seriously. In situations of open conflict, such as in Iraq and Afghanistan, rather than offering protection from the serious dangers journalists face, the authorities restrict their ability to report freely."
Last year, the report recalled, 64 journalists and media workers were reported killed in Iraq, where a total of 139 media professionals have lost their lives since the March 2003 invasion by the US and allies. Some of them covering war were killed by US and Iraqi forces while most were slain by armed groups opposed to the government and foreign military presence.
"Sometimes journalists are targeted just because of who they are and not because of what they say or write. Alan Johnston, the BBC journalist abducted by Palestinian gunmen on 12 March 2007, has become a symbol of the dangers journalists face in conflict areas," the AI document said.
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