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January 18, 2008 

Scores dead in Afghan cold snap
By Charles Haviland BBC News, Kabul Friday, 18 January 2008, 09:53 GMT
The number of people who have died due a cold snap in Afghanistan has risen to 200, government officials say.

More Afghan refugees deported from Iran
Fri, 18 Jan 2008 10:10:05 GMT EARTHtimes.org
Kabul - The Iranian government has deported about 100 Afghan refugees, the latest in a series of deportations, an official said on Friday. A statement issued by Iran's embassy in Kabul on Wednesday said that the deportation

Media group calls for release of two Afghan journalists
Fri Jan 18, 1:17 AM ET
KABUL (AFP) - Reporters Without Borders has called on the Afghan government to release two journalists accused of blasphemy, for which conservative religious clerics have demanded the death penalty.

Gates apologises to Dutch for Afghanistan comments: ministry
Thu Jan 17, 5:04 PM ET
THE HAGUE (AFP) - US Secretary of Defense Robert Gates on Thursday apologised to The Netherlands after criticising NATO forces in southern Afghanistan, a Dutch defence ministry spokesman told AFP.

Gates denies NATO discontent over Afghanistan
By David Morgan Thu Jan 17, 7:04 PM ET
WASHINGTON (Reuters) - U.S. Defense Secretary Robert Gates on Thursday denied reports of discontent between Washington and NATO allies over Afghanistan, a day after a newspaper quoted him criticizing NATO's counterinsurgency skills.

Russia to supply aid to Afghanistan in early Feb.
18:56 | 18/ 01/ 2008
MOSCOW, January 18 (RIA Novosti) - The Russian Emergencies Ministry is to make deliveries of humanitarian aid to Afghanistan in early February 2008, a ministry source said on Friday.

Afghanistan plans to discuss refugee problems in spring
KABUL, January 17 (RIA Novosti) - Afghanistan plans to host this spring an international conference on the return of Afghan refugees to their homeland, the country's ministry for foreign affairs said on Thursday.

Blair urges NATO unity amid Afghan friction
By Jonathan Spicer Thu Jan 17, 4:41 PM ET
TORONTO (Reuters) - Former British Prime Minister Tony Blair said on Thursday that NATO must challenge its enemies in Afghanistan firmly and in a united way, despite recent reports of friction among Western countries.

NGO Sees Long War In Afghanistan As Taliban Rejoins Fight-AFP
KABUL (AFP)--The Taliban last year "seriously rejoined the fight" in Afghanistan, a non-governmental organization security group said Friday in a report that concluded the country was "at the beginning of a war, not the end of one."

Marines will bolster Canadians in Kandahar
Reinforcements for thinly stretched troops in the region should help reduce casualties, U.S. Defence Secretary says
PAUL KORING From Friday's Globe and Mail January 18, 2008 at 3:39 AM EST
WASHINGTON — Hard-pressed Canadian troops in Kandahar will get help - and fewer may get killed - as more than 2,000 battle-hardened U.S. Marines with counterinsurgency training and experience start arriving next

Now our troops are tops in Afghanistan
TheStar.com - Canada - Now our troops are tops in Afghanistan MATHIEU BELANGER
Nathalie Chapados, wife of Warrant Officer Hani Massouh, watches her husband's casket following a funeral in Quebec City yesterday. Massouh, 41, and Cpl. Eric Labbe, 31, died in Afghanistan on Jan. 6. Facing backlash

Afghanistan was never Canada's war
Jan 18, 2008 04:30 AM Thomas Walkom
American Defence Secretary Robert Gates may well be right when he says that Canadian and European troops in Afghanistan are not well equipped to fight a counter-insurgency campaign. But what has been lost in the controversy

Pakistan's envoy takes aim at Dion
BRIAN LAGHI From Friday's Globe and Mail January 18, 2008
OTTAWA — Stéphane Dion's musings about how NATO can help stem the flow of terrorists from Pakistan to Afghanistan has sparked a diplomatic rebuke from Pakistan's chief envoy in Canada, who wants the Liberal Leader

New aircraft, home for Afghan air force
By JASON STRAZIUSO, Associated Press Writer Thu Jan 17, 3:19 PM ET
KABUL, Afghanistan - Calling it the "birth of our air force," Afghan President Hamid Karzai opened a new $22 million U.S.-funded military hangar on Thursday to house a fleet that is expected to triple in the next three years.

President Karzai calls on U.S. to help build Afghan air force
KABUL, Jan. 17 (Xinhua) -- Afghanistan President Hamid Karzai called on the United States Thursday to help the post-Taliban nation rebuild its Air Force.

Bin Laden's son in horse ride for peace
January 19, 2008 The Australian, Australia
CAIRO: Osama bin Laden's son Omar and his son's British wife, Zaina Alsabah, nee Jane Felix-Browne, although saddled with troublesome family connections, are planning a trans-African horse race to promote peace and raise money for child war victims.

Talking to the wrong people
Asia Times, /18/2008 Syed Saleem Shahzad
KABUL - Within a few weeks, Britain's Paddy Ashdown takes up a new job as the United Nations' special envoy to Afghanistan. Even with his experience in the strife-torn Balkans, he will have his work cut out in not repeating

A mirage called Kabul
Opinion By Jean MacKenzie The International Herald Tribune Thursday, January 17, 2008
KABUL:
'Well, at least we're not in Baghdad," we used to say, when confronted by the vagaries of the Kabul winter. No heat, sporadic electricity and growing disaffection among the population might make us uncomfortable

Laura Bush Says She Stands With Afghan People
By Jim Fry – Washington 18 January 2008 - Voice of America
President Bush's wife Laura told a gathering of Afghan and U.S. women Thursday in Washington that Afghan society has made great strides in the five years since the Taliban were driven from power. Later, Laura Bush stressed

Dutch firms eye Afghan market from Dubai
TradeArabia News Service, 01/17/2008
More and more Dutch companies plan to increase their presence in post-war Afghanistan through their operations in Dubai.

Sly thought making 'Rambo' in Afghanistan would insult troops
via New Kerala
London, Jan 17 : American actor, director, producer and screenwriter Sylvester Stallone thought that making the fourth Rambo movie in Afghanistan would insult the troops stationed there so he chose Burma instead.

Prostitution Thrives in Afghanistan
The oldest profession is alive and well in carefully-concealed brothels and on the streets.
Institute for War & Peace Reporting By Sayed Yaqub Ibrahimi in Mazar-e-Sharif (ARR No. 279, 16-Jan-08)
“I do not enjoy being with men. I hate them. But to keep them as loyal customers, I pretend,” said the young Afghan woman.

Pakistani forces say kill up to 90 militants
Fri Jan 18, 2008 9:32am EST By Augustine Anthony
ISLAMABAD, Jan 18 (Reuters) - Pakistani forces killed up to 90 militants in two battles on Friday in the South Waziristan region on the Afghan border, the military said.

Tripartite meeting on border security begins
By Aamir Khan - 15/01/2008 - 14:53
ISLAMABAD, Jan 15 (PAN): Afghan, Pakistani and NATO officials are meeting in Khyber Agency on improved border security aimed at curbing movements of unwanted elements, an official said on Tuesday.

Over 100 illegal Afghans detained in Peshawar
By Janullah Hashimzada - 15/01/2008 - 17:53
PESHAWAR, Jan 15 (Pajhwok Afghan News): Police in the North West Frontier Province (NWFP) have detained more than 100 Afghan refugees having no legal documents.

Remains of Russian crew handed over to elders (Updated)
By By Sher Ahmad Haider & Javed Hamim - 15/01/2008 - 11:18
GHAZNI CITY/KABUL, Jan 14 (Pajhwok Afghan News): Dead bodies of a dozen Russians, killed in the shooting down of a helicopter in southern Afghanistan in December 2006, have been handed over to tribal elders, Taliban said on Monday.

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Scores dead in Afghan cold snap
By Charles Haviland BBC News, Kabul Friday, 18 January 2008, 09:53 GMT
The number of people who have died due a cold snap in Afghanistan has risen to 200, government officials say.

Four large provinces in the western part of the country have been especially badly hit. Tens of thousands of livestock have also perished.

Local people are saying the winter conditions have been the most severe in decades. The cold spell is also affecting neighbouring countries.

People seem to have been unprepared for the heavy snow and low temperatures.

Most of the 200 dead are herdsmen - but women and children have also died.

Much of the west is quite low-lying by Afghan standards and the International Committee of the Red Cross says many people only expect a day or two of snow each winter.

Tens of thousands of sheep, vital for local livelihoods, have also perished in the cold.

At the other end of the country, the north-east, people say recent snowfalls have been the heaviest for 20 years.

A local member of parliament has told the BBC that many villages in this rugged territory are completely cut off and in need of food and medicine.

In the capital, Kabul, where temperatures are dropping, dozens of families who have fled the violence in Helmand in the south, are camping in tents in the streets, dependent on charitable handouts of clothing and food.

The central government has put health workers on alert to combat respiratory diseases caused by the wintry weather around the country.
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More Afghan refugees deported from Iran 
Fri, 18 Jan 2008 10:10:05 GMT EARTHtimes.org
Kabul - The Iranian government has deported about 100 Afghan refugees, the latest in a series of deportations, an official said on Friday. A statement issued by Iran's embassy in Kabul on Wednesday said that the deportation of Afghan refugees from Iran was delayed after a request from Jihadi leaders.

Shamsudin Hamid, head of the Refugees Directorate in the western province of Herat, told local media that despite a promise of a delay in deportation, around 100 refugees were deported late Thursday.

"A woman is among the deported refugees, forced to leave Iran while the rest of her family still remains in Iran," Hamid added.

Around 900 Afghan refugees were deported from Iran in the last few weeks, at a time when the harsh winter in western provinces brings difficulty to daily life. 
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Media group calls for release of two Afghan journalists
Fri Jan 18, 1:17 AM ET
KABUL (AFP) - Reporters Without Borders has called on the Afghan government to release two journalists accused of blasphemy, for which conservative religious clerics have demanded the death penalty.

The international media watchdog said Thursday it was concerned about the fate of the men, arrested separately about two months ago.

Sayed Perwiz Kambakhsh, 23, was picked up in northern Afghanistan in late October on charges of blasphemy and defaming Islam for distributing articles about the role of women in Muslim society, the group said.

Mohammad Ghaws Zalmai, in his 40s, was arrested in November while trying to escape to Pakistan after an uproar about a translation of the Koran that he distributed and was alleged to "misinterpret" parts of the Muslim holy book.

"Afghan journalists are exposed to threats and harassment from religious fundamentalists who try to prevent any debate about Islam and the status of women," the media group said.

"Reporters Without Borders appeals to the international community to intercede with the Afghan government and seek the release of Kambakhsh and Zalmay."

Afghanistan's new democratic constitution enshrines freedom of expression but is based on Islamic Sharia law, which is sometimes interpreted as demanding severe punishments for acts considered "un-Islamic."
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Gates apologises to Dutch for Afghanistan comments: ministry
Thu Jan 17, 5:04 PM ET
THE HAGUE (AFP) - US Secretary of Defense Robert Gates on Thursday apologised to The Netherlands after criticising NATO forces in southern Afghanistan, a Dutch defence ministry spokesman told AFP.

"Mr Gates telephoned (Dutch Defence Minister) Eimert van Middelkoop and apologised," Joop Veen said but did not give details.

The Dutch government on Wednesday summoned the US ambassador to explain Gates' comments.

Gates had told the Los Angeles Times newspaper that international troops deployed in the south -- mainly from Britain, Canada and the Netherlands -- were not properly trained to fight an insurgency.

"We do not recognise ourselves in the image conjured" by Gates, van Middelkoop later told reporters.

He argued that Dutch troops had acted with experience and professionalism.

Parliamentary reactions to Gates's apology in The Netherlands were mixed.

"The case is closed," said Karien van Gennip of Prime Minister Jan Peter Balkenende's Christian Democrats.

But Harry van Bommel of the far-left Socialist party branded Gates' apology as "hypocritical and dishonest", while Hans van Balen of the opposition Liberal party asked for a full retraction of his statement.

At present, nearly 1,665 Dutch soldiers are deployed in Uruzgan in southern Afghanistan as part of the NATO-led International Security Assistance Force (ISAF).

Speaking from Uruzgan, the contingent's commander, Nico Geerts, also criticised Gates's comments in an interview with Netherlands public radio, saying Dutch soldiers were "doing an excellent job."

In Washington, State Department spokesman Sean McCormack said Gates "was not directing his comments at any one country in particular, but at the alliance as a whole, which includes us."

Gates was pointing out that the alliance had to learn to deal "with a different kind of fight than we were originally trained for," which was an invasion by the former Soviet-era Warsaw Pact forces.

The ambassador conveyed a similar message at The Hague, he added.

The ambassador also acknowledged the contribution of the Dutch armed forces and the "sacrifices" of the Dutch people in sending troops to Afghanistan, he said.

The remarks by Gates came just after the US administration decided to send 3,200 more marines to Afghanistan, as NATO allies struggle to provide an extra 7,500 troops requested by commanders on the ground.

The commanders, backed by the United States, have regularly called for extra troops and equipment, even though the force the alliance leads there grew from around 33,000 in January 2007 to some 42,000 in December.

"I'm worried we have some military forces that don't know how to do counter-insurgency operations," Gates told the Los Angeles Times. "Most of the European forces, NATO forces, are not trained in counter-insurgency."

NATO is engaged in its most ambitious mission yet trying to spread the rule of President Hamid Karzai's weak central government into more lawless parts of Afghanistan.

But ISAF forces have struggled to defeat the insurgency, particularly in the south near the mountainous border with Pakistan.

Some 14 Dutch soldiers have been killed in Afghanistan, either accidentally or in combat.
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Gates denies NATO discontent over Afghanistan
By David Morgan Thu Jan 17, 7:04 PM ET
WASHINGTON (Reuters) - U.S. Defense Secretary Robert Gates on Thursday denied reports of discontent between Washington and NATO allies over Afghanistan, a day after a newspaper quoted him criticizing NATO's counterinsurgency skills.

Gates projected an image of unity among Western nations involved in Afghanistan during a Pentagon news briefing, praising the "valor and sacrifice" of NATO forces battling Taliban militants in the country's volatile south.

"Allied forces from the United Kingdom, Canada, the Netherlands, Australia and Denmark and other nations have stepped up to the plate and are playing a significant and powerful role in Afghanistan," the U.S. defense chief said in remarks that struck a conciliatory tone.

The Los Angeles Times on Wednesday published an interview with Gates in which he questioned whether NATO forces and advisers had the training to tackle Taliban and other insurgents behind rising bloodshed in southern Afghanistan.

"Most of the European forces, NATO forces, are not trained in counterinsurgency. They were trained for the Fulda Gap," he said, referring to the German region where a Soviet invasion of Western Europe was considered most likely during the Cold War.

His remarks appeared a day after Gates ordered an extra 3,200 U.S. Marines to Afghanistan and appeared to underscore tensions among allies over the conduct of the conflict, which began after the 2001 U.S.-led invasion of Afghanistan.

CONCERN AMONG ALLIES
NATO allies responded to the Times interview with concern.

Britain insisted its troops had extensive counterinsurgency training, while the Netherlands summoned the U.S. ambassador for an explanation. Gates phoned his Canadian counterpart on Wednesday to say his quotes had been taken out of context.

Pentagon press secretary Geoff Morrell said Gates called Dutch Defense Minister Eimert van Middelkoop on Thursday to "clear up any misunderstanding about anything he said and to express regret for any difficulties (the Times article) has caused the Dutch government."

Gates' Thursday briefing, originally expected in the afternoon, was rescheduled to a morning hour that Pentagon officials said would meet European news media deadlines.

He said the extra U.S. deployment did "not reflect dissatisfaction about the military performance in Afghanistan of allied forces from other nations."

"I mention this because there have been several recent media reports of discontent in the United States and among other NATO members about operations in Afghanistan," he said. "This does not reflect reality or, I believe, the views of our governments."

But Gates, who had struggled in vain for months to convince other states to send more troops, reiterated his comments about inadequate NATO training for counterinsurgency operations in an alliance set up to confront the Soviet Union.

"We have to acknowledge that the alliance as a whole has not trained for counterinsurgency operations even though individual countries have considerable expertise at and success in this arena," Gates said.

"A coalition always faces stresses and strains," he added. "But the trans-Atlantic alliance is in Afghanistan together."

In an interview earlier on Thursday with National Public Radio, Gates said the United States did not plan to send more troops to Afghanistan beyond the additional Marines promised this week despite a lingering shortfall in trainers for the Afghan forces.

He said he had reluctantly asked President George W. Bush to approve the additional troops because it was clear European nations would not boost their force levels in Afghanistan.

The protracted military involvement in Afghanistan and in Iraq has led to strains in the U.S. armed forces.

(Additional reporting by Kristin Roberts; Editing by David Storey and Peter Cooney)
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Russia to supply aid to Afghanistan in early Feb.
18:56 | 18/ 01/ 2008
MOSCOW, January 18 (RIA Novosti) - The Russian Emergencies Ministry is to make deliveries of humanitarian aid to Afghanistan in early February 2008, a ministry source said on Friday.

The deliveries of food to Afghanistan, where about 300 people have recently died of hunger and cold during an unusually severe winter, have been set up by the UN World Food Programme. Russia is one of the program's leading donors.

"On February 2-3, we expect to hand over [to Afghanistan] a 3.3-ton load of wheat flour at the city of Hairaton (near the Uzbek border)," the chief of the ministry's foreign affairs department, Yury Brazhnikov, said.

The load is currently being transported to Termez, in Uzbekistan. A total of 40 carloads have been delivered to the city so far, and ten are due to arrive in the next few days.

In 2007, Russia delivered humanitarian assistance worth about $15 million to Tajikistan, Azerbaijan, Armenia and Cuba. In 2008, the country plans to provide assistance to Somalia, North Korea and Bangladesh.
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Afghanistan plans to discuss refugee problems in spring
KABUL, January 17 (RIA Novosti) - Afghanistan plans to host this spring an international conference on the return of Afghan refugees to their homeland, the country's ministry for foreign affairs said on Thursday.

Sultan Ahmad Baheen, a spokesman for the Afghan Foreign Ministry, said the participants in the conference will gather to determine the scale of the country's needs to accommodate the returning refugees and to work out a schedule of financial aid for the country.

According to various estimates, some 1.5-2 million Afghan refugees currently live in neighboring Iran and some 3.5 million in Pakistan. The refugees abandoned their country looking for shelter from war, hunger and destruction.

"We call on our citizens to return voluntarily to their homeland no matter what country they currently live in," the minister said.

Afghanistan's population, according to four-year-old data from the United Nations, is estimated at 26-27 million people. A census was last begun in the country in 1979, but was not completed due to heavy fighting.

The European Commission has allocated $15 billion to hold a census in Afghanistan in 2008.
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Blair urges NATO unity amid Afghan friction
By Jonathan Spicer Thu Jan 17, 4:41 PM ET
TORONTO (Reuters) - Former British Prime Minister Tony Blair said on Thursday that NATO must challenge its enemies in Afghanistan firmly and in a united way, despite recent reports of friction among Western countries.

Blair urged an audience in Canada -- which is deeply split on its combat role battling Taliban militants in Afghanistan -- that it and other NATO members "have got to take a decision on this global fight on terrorism."

"Our determination to fight can't be in inverse relationship to theirs," he said.

Blair's comments come just days after Canada's death toll in southern Afghanistan rose to 77, and amid reports of discontent between the United States and its NATO allies.

U.S. Defense Secretary Robert Gates was quoted on Wednesday in a U.S. newspaper criticizing NATO's counterinsurgency abilities. But Washington moved quickly to smooth any ruffled allied feathers.

Gates called Canadian Defense Minister Peter MacKay to say the Los Angeles Times took his quotes out of context, and on Thursday he denied friction among members of the North Atlantic Treaty Organization.

Blair, who was prime minister when Britain sent troops into Afghanistan, was asked for some good news about the mission which many Canadians believe saddles Canada with a disproportionate amount of the combat burden.

"I know it's very uncomfortable to engage our armed forces ... but whatever your politics you should be immensely proud of the Canadian troops," Blair told the audience in Toronto.

The Canadian portion of the mission is based in the volatile region of southern Afghanistan around Kandahar, and the report quoting Gates was met with surprise.

A poll this week showed 47 percent of Canadians want the troops brought back from Afghanistan as soon as possible. It also showed 17 percent want troops to continue in their combat role, and 31 percent said the forces should remain in Kandahar but turn over the combat role to another NATO country.

"For all their feudal ideology, they are actually quite sharp on how ... our media works," Blair said of Taliban militants. "They know the impact a vision of carnage has on our television screens.

"Our enemy thinks they can outlast us."

Blair, who is now acting as a peace envoy to the Middle East, stoked speculation late last week that he would run to be the first president of the European Union by praising the bloc in a speech in France.

When Frank McKenna, the former Canadian ambassador to the United Nations, asked Blair on Thursday whether he would consider the job, Blair said: "I'm happy doing what I'm doing."
(Reporting by Jonathan Spicer; editing by Rob Wilson)
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NGO Sees Long War In Afghanistan As Taliban Rejoins Fight-AFP
KABUL (AFP)--The Taliban last year "seriously rejoined the fight" in Afghanistan, a non-governmental organization security group said Friday in a report that concluded the country was "at the beginning of a war, not the end of one."

It has also become clear that the Taliban's "easy departure" in 2001, when a U.S.-led invasion drove them from power, was "more of a strategic retreat than an actual military defeat," the Afghanistan NGO Safety Office, or ANSO, said.

"A few years from now, 2007 will likely be looked back upon as the year in which the Taliban seriously rejoined the fight and the hopes of a rapid end to conflict were finally set aside by all but the most optimistic," ANSO said.

About 1,980 civilians were killed in 2007 - half by insurgents and the rest almost equally by soldiers or criminal groups, the group said.

Insurgents killed 15 NGO workers, four of them foreigners, last year, compared with 24 in 2006 and eight in 2005, the group said. Eighty-eight NGO staffers were abducted in 2007, most of them by insurgents, out of a total 555 kidnappings, it said, without providing numbers for previous years.

Abductions and killings were likely to escalate this year, with growing links between insurgents and criminal gangs increasing the threat, ANSO said.

The NATO-led International Security Assistance Force, which is helping the government fight insurgents, is "in fact just now entering a period of broad and deep conflict, the outcomes of which are far from certain," it said.

ISAF may number about 41,000 soldiers but "realistically" couldn't have more than up to 7,000 for combat, with the rest mostly support staff or prevented from fighting because of national restrictions, the group said.

The size of the Taliban force was unknown, but estimates ranged from 2,000 to 20,000.

"There would not appear to be any capacity within ISAF to stop or turn back anticipated AOG (armed opposition groups) expansion," the report said. "In simple terms, the consensus amongst informed individuals at the end of 2007 seems to be that Afghanistan is at the beginning of a war, not the end of one."
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Marines will bolster Canadians in Kandahar
Reinforcements for thinly stretched troops in the region should help reduce casualties, U.S. Defence Secretary says
PAUL KORING From Friday's Globe and Mail January 18, 2008 at 3:39 AM EST
WASHINGTON — Hard-pressed Canadian troops in Kandahar will get help - and fewer may get killed - as more than 2,000 battle-hardened U.S. Marines with counterinsurgency training and experience start arriving next month in southern Afghanistan.

"My hope is that the addition of the marines will provide the kind of help that will reduce the levels of casualties," U.S. Defence Secretary Robert Gates said yesterday when asked about the disproportionate number of Canadians killed battling the Taliban.

Mr. Gates, still dealing with the brouhaha caused by published reports that suggested he had faulted the ability of Canadian, Dutch and British troops for counterinsurgency warfare, said he never intended his general criticism of NATO training to apply to Canada's troops in southern Afghanistan.

"I have no problems with the Canadians," he said at a Pentagon news conference yesterday.

 "Our allies, including the Canadians, the British, the Dutch, the Australians and others, are suffering losses as they demonstrate valour and skill in combat."

In Canada, the nation is deeply divided over whether to extend the fighting mission in Afghanistan beyond its current mandate of February, 2009.

The arrival of the marines, expected to reinforce NATO forces in southern Afghanistan for this year's so-called summer fighting season, will add a massive punch to the thinly stretched Canadian and Dutch forces in Kandahar and neighbouring Uruzgan province.

Although Canada has about 2,500 soldiers deployed to southern Afghanistan, only about 500 are "outside the wire" directly involved in counterinsurgency operations at any time.

A much bigger percentage of the 2,200 marines will be available for combat because the U.S. military already has a huge logistics, support and administrative structure in Afghanistan.

The marines will report to Canadian Major-General Marc Lessard, who takes over command of NATO's southern regional command next month as part of a rotation including the British and Dutch.

The 24th Marine Expeditionary Unit will provide "a manoeuvres force so it has the flexibility to move wherever in Regional Command South that the Canadians deem is necessary to go after the enemy. I mean, this is a fighting force that will greatly enhance the capabilities of the Canadians and our allies who are down there taking it to the enemy," Pentagon spokesman Geoff Morrell said earlier this week.

"There is a fighting season in Afghanistan. And so we're getting those marines there at the beginning of that fighting season," General James Cartwright, vice-chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, said yesterday.

"We learned last year that if you're there and ready to go in the spring, it makes a big difference."

But the one-time, seven-month deployment of the marines will mean that at least three battalions will be required to replace them and Mr. Gates served notice yesterday that NATO allies are needed to fill the gap.

He said he wanted "them to be thinking seriously about who can backfill against the marines when the marines leave early next winter, so that that capability won't be lost."

Mr. Gates also ordered another 1,000 U.S. Marines to Afghanistan to act as trainers and mentors to the Afghan army, which despite showing significant improvement, lacks the equipment, firepower, training and numbers to take on the Taliban insurgency in southern and eastern Afghanistan.

The 3,200 U.S. Marines will partly fill a 7,000-soldier shortfall in Afghanistan that NATO nations have refused to address for more than a year.

About 45,000 foreign troops are currently deployed in Afghanistan. About two-thirds are American.

Most of the rest, including sizable contingents from Germany, France, Italy and Spain, are stationed far from the insurgency in the south and forbidden by their governments to deploy close to the fighting.

For months, Mr. Gates has been pushing some of the European allies to share more of the combat burden.

But in a radio interview yesterday he acknowledged that "many of them are in minority or coalition governments where support for the activity in Afghanistan is fragile, if not difficult to come by.

"And one of the reasons why I decided to tone down the public criticism is that, frankly, I think they're doing as much as they can."
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Now our troops are tops in Afghanistan
TheStar.com - Canada - Now our troops are tops in Afghanistan MATHIEU BELANGER
Nathalie Chapados, wife of Warrant Officer Hani Massouh, watches her husband's casket following a funeral in Quebec City yesterday. Massouh, 41, and Cpl. Eric Labbe, 31, died in Afghanistan on Jan. 6. Facing backlash, U.S. defence chief and ambassador heap praise on soldiers. So does Tony Blair

OTTAWA–One day after having their fighting abilities questioned, Canadian troops in Afghanistan were showered with praise yesterday for efforts in combating the Taliban.

U.S. Defence Secretary Robert Gates this week suggested NATO troops were botching the counter-insurgency battle in Afghanistan, but yesterday he spent most of the day singing a different tune.

He singled Canada out by name, along with the Netherlands and Britain, for showing "valour and skill" in southern Afghanistan, where fighting has been fiercest.

"They have rolled back the Taliban from previous strongholds in the south. They are taking the fight to the enemy in some of the most gruelling conditions imaginable. As a result of the valour and sacrifice of these allies, the Taliban has suffered significant losses and no longer holds real estate of any consequence," Gates told reporters at a Washington news conference.

In Toronto, where he was giving a speech to a business group, former British prime minister Tony Blair praised the "extraordinary quality" of Canadian soldiers fighting in southern Afghanistan, where 77 of them have died during the mission.

Prompted by a question from Frank McKenna, former Canadian ambassador to the U.S., Blair said "whatever your politics, you should be immensely proud of the Canadian troops."

Describing himself as a "fully paid-up fan of Canada," Blair said Canadian troops are serving "as noble a cause as I can think of."

Gates, meanwhile, in an interview with National Public Radio, said he toned down his public criticism of NATO nations only because many of them, including Canada, have minority governments where support for the mission is "fragile."

"One of the reasons why I decided to tone down the public criticism is that frankly I think they are doing as much as they can," he said.

Asked about public opinion in Canada, Gates said he hopes the extra 3,200 U.S. Marines on their way to southern Afghanistan will make the region safer for Canadian troops when spring – and the start of the "fighting season" – arrives. "My hope is that the addition of Marines will provide the kind of help that will reduce the levels of casualties," he told National Public Radio.

Still, it was that "fragile" public opinion abroad – and a backlash in Canada and Europe – that forced the Pentagon to move yesterday to dispel the perception that Gates was pointing fingers.

He said he called Defence Minister Peter MacKay to make that clear on Wednesday, mindful that a Canadian soldier had been killed the day before.

"I wanted to make sure they understood respect for their contribution and how much of an impact they are making," Gates said at the news conference.

Today, the body of Trooper Richard Renaud is due to be returned to Canada. Renaud, who leaves behind a pregnant wife and a 4-year-old stepson, was killed Tuesday by a roadside bomb north of Kandahar.

David Wilkins, Washington's ambassador to Canada, joined in the damage control effort, praising Canadian troops as "heroes." Wilkins, who spent Christmas in Kandahar, says he saw firsthand their "outstanding" work.

"They are doing remarkable and effective work in Afghanistan under the toughest of circumstances. My country greatly appreciates the sacrifices Canadian troops and other NATO allies are making in southern Afghanistan to increase security and stability," he said.

Prime Minister Stephen Harper yesterday shrugged off the fuss surrounding Gates' earlier remarks, saying he's heard nothing but praise from American officials for Canada's effort in Afghanistan.

"There should be no misinterpretation of those comments vis à vis Canada," Harper said yesterday.

But Canada's low-key response rankled opposition MPs.

"Since when did the government of Canada become apologists for the Bush administration?" New Democratic Party Leader Jack Layton said in Toronto.

"Our Prime Minister should have been on the phone to the president of the United States calling for not only an apology, but for an understanding that the direction being taken by NATO, in fact, isn't producing the results in Afghanistan that Canadians want to see."

As Canada prepares to debate the future of its Afghan mission, Gates said he has no worries that NATO allies are preparing to pull out.

"In fact the Dutch have just extended ... their commitment by two years. I think that people are accepting their responsibilities, particularly those that are already there," Gates said.

He landed in hot water when he voiced frustration with the coalition efforts in southern Afghanistan in an interview with the Los Angeles Times.

"I'm worried we're deploying (military advisers) that are not properly trained and I'm worried we have some military forces that don't know how to do counter-insurgency operations," Gates told the newspaper.

He insisted yesterday he wasn't singling out any nation. He denied that the dispatch of additional U.S. troops implied "dissatisfaction" about the performance of allied countries already there, including more than 2,000 Canadian troops.

But he did say the Cold War alliance has been slow to adapt to the guerrilla tactics of insurgents.

"The alliance as a whole has not trained for counter-insurgency operations, even though individual countries have considerable expertise at and success in this arena."

He conceded that the U.S. has also had its troubles adapting to drawn-out counter-insurgency campaigns in both Afghanistan and Iraq. But he tried to play down the controversy, saying quarrels between allied generals in World War II are "the stuff of legend. A coalition at war always faces stresses and strains ... but the transatlantic alliance is in Afghanistan together."

With files from Rob Ferguson
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Afghanistan was never Canada's war
Jan 18, 2008 04:30 AM Thomas Walkom
American Defence Secretary Robert Gates may well be right when he says that Canadian and European troops in Afghanistan are not well equipped to fight a counter-insurgency campaign. But what has been lost in the controversy over his impolitic remarks is that we did not sign on to fight insurgents – there or anywhere else.

The International Stabilization and Assistance Force, which NATO now commands and which includes some 2,500 Canadian soldiers, was set up in late 2001 by the United Nations to do just what its name suggests – stabilize a country emerging from years of civil war and assist the fledgling Kabul government in its redevelopment efforts.

Fighting the Taliban (or, as they were called then, the Taliban "remnants") was a job that Washington insisted on reserving to itself through what it called Operation Enduring Freedom.

Canada helped out in that one too, sending troops to serve under U.S. command in 2002. But in those days, America wanted to keep its sometimes squeamish allies well away from a dark war that was aimed primarily at capturing terror suspects and transferring them to interrogators at Guantanamo Bay.

It was only after 2003, when the U.S. found itself troop-short and bogged down in Iraq, that Washington changed the rules of engagement for its allies. Gradually, Afghanistan became NATO's war. Washington's plan then was to gradually reduce its 20,000 troop commitment to Afghanistan and switch them over to Iraq.

Which is why, since 2006, Canadian troops have found themselves under fire in the Taliban stronghold of Kandahar.

It's worth remembering that we keep sending soldiers to Afghanistan not because Canada has been attacked by the Taliban, but because our friends, the Americans, feel they are at war with them.

The Dutch are in southern Afghanistan for the same reason. So are the British – who have paid a severe price at home for their decision to support Washington's various anti-Islamist wars.

That's why Gates' comments rub so raw in this and other NATO countries. Since 2001, one Canadian diplomat and 77 soldiers have died in Afghanistan. More than 250 more have been wounded in action. Yet this was never our war. It was always America's.

The U.S. chose to declare Afghanistan the enemy after the terrorist attacks of September 2001. Had Washington elected to avenge 9/11 by invading the country from which most of those terrorists came, Canadian troops would now be fighting in Saudi Arabia.

Their call, their war, their show.

Now, Washington has shifted its focus again. On Tuesday, the Pentagon announced it will send an additional 3,200 Marines to Afghanistan – bringing the total number of U.S. troops there to more than 30,000.

It is in this context that Gates made his remarks. In effect, the American public is being told that its soldiers have to fix Afghanistan because the pusillanimous Europeans and invisible Canadians aren't up to the job. Or, as the Washington Post noted editorially: "It's becoming clear that the war must be won by U.S. troops, and not by NATO."

Which, in the broader scheme of things, is just fine. Let America, freshly confident after its counterinsurgency successes in Iraq and Vietnam, finish its own war itself. Then Canadian troops can come back to Canada. And the North Atlantic Treaty Organization can refocus on the North Atlantic.

Thomas Walkom's column normally appears Thursday and Sunday.
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Pakistan's envoy takes aim at Dion
BRIAN LAGHI From Friday's Globe and Mail January 18, 2008
OTTAWA — Stéphane Dion's musings about how NATO can help stem the flow of terrorists from Pakistan to Afghanistan has sparked a diplomatic rebuke from Pakistan's chief envoy in Canada, who wants the Liberal Leader to personally clarify his stand.

"We are dismayed at the statement of NATO intervention in Pakistan," High Commissioner Musa Javed Chohan said in an interview. "[We are upset by] the concept of any intervention in Pakistan. ...Under no circumstances will we allow any foreign forces to operate on our soil."

Mr. Chohan was responding to comments attributed to Mr. Dion this week, which the leader's office has subsequently clarified. Mr. Dion said in Quebec City that "if they [Pakistani leaders] are incapable of doing it themselves, it is something that we could envision with NATO forces how to help Pakistan help us bring peace to Afghanistan."

The remarks were taken by some to suggest Mr. Dion supported sending troops to the nation. Liberal defence critic Denis Coderre later clarified the remarks saying Mr. Dion was simply trying to convey that there needs to be a diplomatic solution in the region.

But Mr. Chohan said diplomacy is already taking place in the country. "The initial statement does more damage than subsequent clarifications, though we do hope that Mr. Dion would come up with a statement that this is exactly what he meant."

Mr. Chohan issued a statement in which he said Mr. Dion shows "a lack of understanding of the ground realities. We have, at the highest level, made it clear that Pakistan will not allow any foreign forces to operate within its territory under any circumstances.

"The sovereignty of the state will not be compromised at any level as the government and people of Pakistan are fully capable of handling their security matters themselves."

Liberal spokespeople pointed reporters to the party's website yesterday, which blames the Tories for twisting Mr. Dion's remarks.

"Contrary to the erroneous claim and distortions of Mr. Harper and the Conservatives, in a press conference in Quebec City yesterday the Liberal leader did not propose a military intervention in Pakistan. Mr. Dion obviously did not propose any sort of military intervention. Mr. Dion believes that Canada must focus our diplomatic efforts on Pakistan in order to secure the border with Afghanistan."

Calgary Conservative MP Jason Kenney called Mr. Dion's statement reckless. "When you talk about a NATO intervention, you are clearly and explicitly talking about a military intervention. Or perhaps he doesn't know what NATO is."
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New aircraft, home for Afghan air force
By JASON STRAZIUSO, Associated Press Writer Thu Jan 17, 3:19 PM ET
KABUL, Afghanistan - Calling it the "birth of our air force," Afghan President Hamid Karzai opened a new $22 million U.S.-funded military hangar on Thursday to house a fleet that is expected to triple in the next three years.

Standing in the cavernous hangar opposite Kabul's international airport, Karzai thanked the U.S. for helping to buy six refurbished Mi-17 transport helicopters and six refurbished Mi-35 helicopter gunships from the Czech Republic, as well as four An-32 transport planes from Ukraine.

The newly acquired aircraft will help transport Afghan troops — who are taking on an increasing role in the battle against the Taliban — on missions around the country.

The new aircraft and upgraded flight facilities are part of a $183 million U.S.-funded program to bolster the Afghan air force.

Afghanistan once had a strong air force that included hundreds of helicopters and Soviet-built MiG-21 and Su-22 warplanes, but that fleet was devastated by two decades of war.

"Today is again the birth of our air force," Karzai told a crowd of U.S. and Afghan military personnel. "We should strengthen this air force because it's very necessary for the Afghan government to have it."

Air Force Brig. Gen. Jay H. Lindell, the U.S. commander in charge of helping train and equip the Afghan air force, said that before six of the Czech helicopters were delivered in December, the Afghan air force only had four working helicopters.

"This new hangar is ... a new beginning and the rebirth of the Afghan Air Corps," Lindell said.

Some of the new aircraft, acquired at a total cost of $90 million, were delivered last month. The rest are to arrive by April. Ten Mi-17s donated by the United Arab Emirates also are to be delivered in the spring.

Today, the Afghan force has 22 helicopters and planes, and the goal is to have 61 aircraft by 2011. The most important missions for the aircraft are to transport and help supply Afghan army troops, Lindell said.

"They need rotary wing aircraft (helicopters) for battlefield mobility," Lindell said. "The Mi-17 is a really rugged, reliable aircraft. They know how to fly it, they know how to maintain them, they just don't have very many of them."

Karzai said the international community has agreed to supply the country with fighter jets such as F-16s, although Lindell previously said plans drawn through 2011 don't call for any military jets for Afghanistan.
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President Karzai calls on U.S. to help build Afghan air force
KABUL, Jan. 17 (Xinhua) -- Afghanistan President Hamid Karzai called on the United States Thursday to help the post-Taliban nation rebuild its Air Force.

"The United States has promised to assist 120 planes and helicopters of different kinds and we hope it to hand over the best ones including F-16 and F-18,"the Afghan leader said at the inauguration of Air Power Day ceremony at the Kabul Airbase.

However, he did not say when the assets would be given to the Afghan government.

The Afghan president also thanked the United Arab Emirate and Czech Republic for contributing 22 helicopters including Mi-17 andMi-35 to Afghanistan's fledgling Air Force.

Of these, three have been arrived to Afghanistan while the remaining 19 would arrive in March.

Describing the day as the "Rebirth" of the war-torn country's national air power he stressed that his government would do its best to change the air force into a capable one.

He also recalled that Afghanistan once had enough capable air force with some 500 pieces of various jet fighters, helicopters, reconnaissance and transport planes but all had been destroyed due to nearly three decades of war.

The president also expressed his gratitude for the contribution of the Untied States in the reconstruction process of his country.

Currently a 183 million U.S. dollars project is underway at the Kabul Airbase to serve as home base for 46 aircraft and accommodate around 4,000 personnel in 10 modern barracks.

Afghan Air Corps would also acquire An-32 transport aircraft from Ukraine and C-27A plane from Italy in future.

Speaking on the occasion, Afghan Defense Minister Abdul Rahim Wardak expressed the hope that Afghan Air Corps would be upgraded to a capable air force that could be able to defend the country's airspace.

The Afghan air force would have 61 pieces of different kinds of choppers and transport planes by 2011, commander of Afghan Air Corps Mohammad Dauwan said.

However, he did not say how many aircraft he has currently under his command.
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Bin Laden's son in horse ride for peace
January 19, 2008 The Australian, Australia
CAIRO: Osama bin Laden's son Omar and his son's British wife, Zaina Alsabah, nee Jane Felix-Browne, although saddled with troublesome family connections, are planning a trans-African horse race to promote peace and raise money for child war victims.

The couple, whose marriage last April caused a tabloid storm, say they want to use the 5000km trek as a platform for their advocacy for peace between Muslims and the West.

"It's about changing the ideas of the Western mind. A lot of people think Arabs - especially the bin Ladens, especially the sons of Osama - are allterrorists. This is not the truth," Omar said.

The 26-year-old, who bears a striking resemblance to his father, said he hadn't seen him since 2000, when he (Omar) left Afghanistan.

"He doesn't have email," Omar said. "He doesn't take a telephone ... if he had something like this, they will find him through satellites."

Omar said he cut himself off from violence when he realised there was a better way to achieve change.

"I don't want to be in that situation to just fight. I like to find another way and this other way may be like we do now, talking," he said in English.

Ms Alsabah, 52, said that despite his surname, her husband was in a rare position to do good.

"Omar thinks he can be a negotiator," said Ms Alsabah, who is applying for a visa to take her husband to Britain. "He's one of the only people who can do this in the world."

Omar, the fourth-eldest of Osama bin Laden's 19 children, lived with his father in Sudan, then moved with him to Afghanistan when Khartoum forced out the al-Qa'ida leader in 1996.

Confirming Omar's family connection yesterday, a US intelligence official said: "Omar bin Laden is the son of Osama bin Laden and his first wife, Najwa."

At least two of Osama bin Laden's sons, Hamza and Saad, are believed to have an active role in al-Qa'ida; but most of his children, like Omar, live as legitimate businessmen.

The family as a whole disowned Osama in 1994 when Saudi Arabia stripped him of his citizenship because of his militant activities.

Osama bin Laden's billionaire father, Mohammed, who died in 1967, had more than 50 children and founded the Binladen Group, a construction conglomerate that is given many major building contracts in the kingdom.

The couple hopes to start their horse race in March.

They admit they are still in the planning stages, seeking approval of governments along the route. They are also looking for sponsors to help pay for the event and raise money for child victims of war.

Omar said they planned to ride 50km a day, with week-long rests in each country.
AP
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Talking to the wrong people
Asia Times, /18/2008 Syed Saleem Shahzad
KABUL - Within a few weeks, Britain's Paddy Ashdown takes up a new job as the United Nations' special envoy to Afghanistan. Even with his experience in the strife-torn Balkans, he will have his work cut out in not repeating the mistakes that have been made over the past seven years since the Taliban were ousted from power.

US Defense Secretary Robert Gates does not think the North Atlantic Treaty Organization is doing its job properly in Afghanistan. "It needs to do a better job in training for counter-insurgency," he said in hard-hitting comments this week. The US solution is to throw more muscle at the problem. The Pentagon announced this week that 3,200 Marine Corps would beef up the US presence to 30,000. To date, the military option has not worked.

The British approach, and some some extent the US's, has been centered on engaging the Taliban, but without Taliban leader Mullah Omar and al-Qaeda-linked elements. This, too, has not worked.

Lord Ashdown's test will be to learn from this, mindful that the Taliban are the most powerful reality of today's Afghanistan.

Throughout 2007, the British Embassy in Kabul under Sherard Cowper Coles made desperate overtures in southwestern Afghanistan to find a political solution with the Taliban, but without Mullah Omar. Multiple clandestine operations were launched and millions of dollars were funneled to the Taliban.

However, it all came to nothing and only caused serious differences between the two major allies - Britain and the US. And all the time the Taliban consolidated their position in the south.

The case of Irishman Michael Semple, who was acting head of the European Union mission in Kabul, is instructive. The fluent Dari-speaking Semple had spent over 18 years in Afghanistan in various capacities, including with the United Nations and as an advisor to the British Embassy in Kabul, before being expelled last month after being accused of talking to the Taliban.

His colleagues within the Western community call him a British spy; he had become close to tribes in northern Afghanistan during the Taliban's rule in the late 1990s. Semple has a Muslim Pakistani wife.

While on the EU's payroll and with development funds from the Irish Foreign Ministry, he visited restive Helmand province to see the Taliban. Using his wife's Pakistani connections and giving the impression of being Muslim - along with funds - he won some hearts and minds. People like Taliban commander Mullah Salam, now the administrator of Musa Qala district of Helmand, were thrilled to find a "blond-bearded Muslim".

Semple went to Helmand with the complete approval of the Afghan Ministry of Interior, which is supported by northern Afghan politicians. But the US and the Afghan presidential palace abhorred the idea of making Taliban friends and giving them control of parts of the province without them having to denounce Mullah Omar.

The governor of Helmand, Asadullah Wafa, called Semple a Pakistani agent and he was subsequently expelled. He now lives in Islamabad with his Pakistani in-laws.

Himouyun Hamidzada, a spokesman for Afghan President Hamid Karzai, told Asia Times Online, "This great game style of things cannot be approved in Afghanistan. Afghanistan is not a colony but a sovereign country. Everything must be done with the approval of the Afghan government."

However, Semple's plan was just a stepping stone of the broader British design in which Coles says British troops will stay in Afghanistan for another 10 years.

The ambassador came up with the idea of tribal militias - arabikai - as a way to defeat the Taliban. In Afghanistan's past, when invading armies approached a town, drums were beaten to call people to oppose the enemy. The idea was that towns and villages would form their own militias to respond to such drum-beating. The idea met immediate opposition from the NATO commander, who happened to be an American.

"He [Coles] thought that the people would fight against the Taliban, but the Taliban happen to be the sons of the soil," a Western strategic analyst based in Kabul told ATol on the condition of anonymity. "The idea of arming tribal militias in Helmand is silly and will fall flat. Helmand is in the hands of anti-coalition insurgents, and we expect arrangements like arabikai to be a success?"

A spokesperson for the British Embassy in Kabul countered, "I think the Afghan government is completely in favor of arabikai and this has been successfully implemented in a few Afghan provinces."

In one British initiative they targeted Mullah Mansoor Dadullah, the brother of slain Taliban strongman Mullah Dadullah, who was the new commander of the Taliban in southwestern Afghanistan. The former opposition leader of the Pakistani Parliament, Maulana Fazlur Rehman, was a conduit.

The initial talks were successful and several Taliban commanders in the southwest agreed on a ceasefire and Mullah Mansoor Dadullah gave his word of honor to Rehman that he would represent the Taliban in jirgagai (small tribal councils) and that he would convince Mullah Omar on the need for peace talks.

However, the "coalition of the willing" in Afghanistan had serious differences, especially the US, and while debate on the issue raged, Mullah Omar made a move. Dadullah was "sacked" from his position and he is now just a Taliban foot soldier.

Meanwhile, the Pakistani Ministry of Interior warned Rehman, a self-proclaimed founding father of the Taliban, that he was now number one on al-Qaeda's hit list. Rehman's movements are now restricted because of security concerns.

Britain's backroom maneuvering has thus stalled and the Taliban are once again regrouping in the Waziristan tribal areas in Pakistan for another spring offensive.

When Ashdown arrives, he will need to think of options that include talking with the real players - Mullah Omar and al-Qaeda.

Syed Saleem Shahzad is Asia Times Online's Pakistan Bureau Chief
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A mirage called Kabul
Opinion By Jean MacKenzie The International Herald Tribune Thursday, January 17, 2008
KABUL:
'Well, at least we're not in Baghdad," we used to say, when confronted by the vagaries of the Kabul winter. No heat, sporadic electricity and growing disaffection among the population might make us uncomfortable, but those of us living outside the smothering embrace of the embassies or the United Nations had relative freedom of movement and few security worries.

And of course we had the Serena, a lovely oasis amid the dark and gloom the Afghan capital. The hotel spa offered solace and a hot shower, a professional massage therapist and a relaxation room where we could pretend for a few hours that we were in Dubai.

On Monday evening, all of that came to an abrupt end when Taliban gunmen burst into the lobby, one exploding his ball-bearing vest, one running to gym and spa area, spraying bullets as he went. At least eight people died, and several more were injured.

For the rest of us, who viewed the Serena as a symbol of what Kabul could be, it was a long overdue wake-up call. Within the hotel's shattered windows and pock-marked walls lie the remnants of our illusions.

We used to laugh a bit smugly at those who cowered behind their reinforced walls, venturing out only in bullet-proof glass surrounded by convoys of big men with big guns.

We shopped on Chicken Street for carpets and trinkets, we dined at the shrinking number of restaurants that still serve alcohol. We partied at L'Atmosphere, "L'Atmo" to its friends, the "in" spot for the international crowd - on Thursday evenings, what passes in Kabul for the beautiful people gather there to see and be seen. We drank lattes at the Kabul Coffee House, and had our hair and nails done at the Nova salon. And we patted ourselves on the backs because we knew the real Kabul.

None of us was prepared for what happened at the Serena on Monday. The Taliban have started to implement a new strategy, announced their spokesman. They will specifically target civilians, and will bring their mayhem to places where foreigners congregate.

So much for L'Atmo.

I am no stranger to the insurgency, having spent three years in Afghanistan and much of the past 12 months in Helmand Province.

Helmand, center of opium and Taliban, is arguably the most unstable region of the country at present. It is also the scene of some the fiercest fighting in Afghanistan, with British troops clashing frequently with the rebels.

For the past several months we have been hearing that NATO is winning, that the insurgency is running out of steam. Each suicide attack is a last gasp, a sign that the Taliban are becoming desperate.

As the enemy melts away, only to regroup again and again, we are expected to believe that this time, surely, they will stay put in their hideouts.

So it was with a bitter smile that I listened to the head of the Afghan National Security Directorate explain away Monday's attack as a sign of the Taliban's weakness. "An enemy that cannot hold territory, an enemy that has no support among the people, has no other means than suicide bombing," Amrullah Saleh told assembled reporters.

But those of us who have covered the steady decline of hope in Afghanistan over the past three years know where the relative strength lies.

Not with the central government, whose head, Hamid Karzai, has largely lost the respect of his people with his increasingly bizarre antics. Weeping at the plight of orphans in Kandahar, begging the Taliban to send him their address, confessing that he is powerless to control the warlords, auctioning off his silken robe to feed widows and orphans - the once bright hope of the international community has dimmed and may soon flicker out entirely.

Not with the foreign troops, who have been unable to provide security or usher in the development that Afghanistan so desperately needs. Civilian casualties, hushed up or denied, have made NATO a curse in some parts of the country.

Not with the international assistance community, with its misguided counter-narcotics policies, high-priced consultants and wasteful practices. Out of the billions that have supposedly come into the country, a mere trickle has made any appreciable difference.

The Taliban, under whose brutal regime Afghanistan became an international pariah, is steadily regaining ground. Even those who deplore their harsh, arbitrary rules and capricious behavior welcome the illusion of security they bring in their wake.

"At least we have no thieves," said more than one resident of Musa Qala, a town in Helmand that spent almost a year under Taliban rule. Musa Qala was recently "liberated" by NATO and Afghan troops, who promptly handed over control to a former Taliban commander.

We are all engaged in willful self-deception: We try to convince ourselves that things are getting better, while Afghanistan - and our hopes for stability in the region - recede further and further into the distance.

The United States Agency for International Development is talking about "relocating" some of its contractors to Dubai, at least temporarily. A Norwegian friend has made plans with us for dinner Friday night, "provided I am not evacuated."

Soon we will all be living in reinforced compounds, gathering for desperate, Masque of the Red Death parties, with guests being searched at the door.

Not me. I will be back at the Serena as soon as the blood is mopped up and the windows repaired. I'll resume my morning workouts and try not to fall off my exercise machine every time a door slams or a car backfires.

The one thing I will be unable to do is book a massage. Zeenia, the sunny Filipina who brightened my weekends with her smile and magic hands, was shot and killed Monday night.

Maybe Baghdad is not so far away.

Jean MacKenzie is the Afghanistan country director for the Institute of War and Peace Reporting.
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Laura Bush Says She Stands With Afghan People
By Jim Fry – Washington 18 January 2008 - Voice of America
President Bush's wife Laura told a gathering of Afghan and U.S. women Thursday in Washington that Afghan society has made great strides in the five years since the Taliban were driven from power. Later, Laura Bush stressed in an exclusive interview with Voice of America the progress Afghanistan has made. VOA's Jim Fry reports.

 The first lady says men and women in Afghanistan are rebuilding a stable, democratic society. In an exclusive interview, Laura Bush told Shaista Sadat of VOA's Afghanistan service that she feels strong affection for the people and the country. "In 1957, when I was 11 years old in the sixth grade in Midland, Texas, I wrote my school report on Afghanistan," she said.

The first lady says she never would have guessed she would visit Afghanistan as an adult, as she did in 2005 when she spoke out for the rights of women and their need for education. Nor could she have known the restrictions women would face under the Islamic fundamentalism of the Taliban. Mrs. Bush says since a new government was established, she has seen dramatic changes.

"And so many people have voted including many, many women. The new government. The constitution," she said.

Mrs. Bush cites a 25 percent drop in infant mortality and five million children in school, two-fifths of them girls. She says advances have come despite the risks some people face. "I understand the fear that particularly women, but that women and men, have in Afghanistan when they talk about education - something that was denied before during the Taliban," she said.

The first lady spoke to members of the U.S.-Afghan Women's Council, including women from Afghanistan who are involved in business and the nation's reconstruction. "Their lives have changed and they've changed for the better," she said.

Mrs. Bush also spoke of neighboring Pakistan, the return of former Prime Minister Benazir Bhutto and her assassination. "Well, I stand with all those who are reaching out for democracy and I also grieve for the life of Benazir Bhutto and send my condolences to the people of Pakistan," she said.

She says the two countries should reach out together for democracy. Afghan President Hamid Karzai and Pakistan President Pervez Musharraf met last month, despite heightened tensions and differences over security. "Afghanistan and Pakistan share such a very long border that the relations between the two countries should be strong," the first lady said.

While Mrs. Bush calls for continued international military support, she also says Afghanistan needs to build up its own forces to provide for security. She says it is up to the Afghan people to stand up and reject poppy growing and the drug trade. "I think there are a lot of ways the people of Afghanistan can work together and try to put differences aside and really stand up and say: We don't want terrorism anymore," she said.

The first lady tells VOA, she hopes to return as a private citizen and continue working to improve the lives of women and children in Afghanistan.
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Dutch firms eye Afghan market from Dubai
TradeArabia News Service, 01/17/2008
More and more Dutch companies plan to increase their presence in post-war Afghanistan through their operations in Dubai.

The Dutch economic mission to Dubai is organising a round-table conference on January 22 to help network Dutch companies interested in doing business in Afghanistan with their Afghani counterparts.

The conference will be attended by a delegation of 15 high-profile Afghani businessmen, who are eager to represent Dutch companies, services and products in their country, said one of the organisers.

The conference is a joint-initiative of Frank Heemskerk, Dutch minister for foreign trade, Kees Van Spronsen, consul-general with support from Ehsan Turabaz, president of the Netherlands-Afghanistan Business Council and Consul of Afghanistan.

It aims to boost the economical ties between The Netherlands and Afghanistan, the official added.

Pure Comms Management Consultants, a licensed partner of Dubai Knowledge Village, has acknowledged its corporate social responsibility and empowered the organisation of this event.

The participating companies have been selected on the basis of their specific involvement and knowledge about education, agrifood and water management. All three segments are essential in the revitalisation of post-war Afghanistan.
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Sly thought making 'Rambo' in Afghanistan would insult troops
via New Kerala
London, Jan 17 : American actor, director, producer and screenwriter Sylvester Stallone thought that making the fourth Rambo movie in Afghanistan would insult the troops stationed there so he chose Burma instead.

With the current political situation in Afghanistan, it would have been the ideal location for shooting the movie. However Sly, who directed the movie, decided not to use Afghanistan or Iraq as the setting.

"I thought it would be an insult to the men who are fighting, to think that a fictional character could come and change everything. I thought Burma would be more real," the Sun quoted him as saying.

The film, simply called Rambo, finds the cynical Vietnam veteran leading a solitary life in the mountains and jungles of northern Thailand. His peaceful retirement is shattered however when a group of human rights missionaries seek him out and ask him to guide them into Burma to deliver medical supplies.

"All you see in the movie is authentic - it's real cannons, real amputees who had lost their legs in landmine accidents," he added.

"You have one small area with peasants being overwhelmed by this brutal military force. They are picked out because they are Christians and Rambo is an atheist at this time and he had lost most of his humanity."

"I wanted to do something more spiritual and visually interesting," he said.

Shooting in the politically unstable area was very daring, with Burma having hit the headlines last year when thousands of Buddhist monks led protests against military rule in the country.

The new Rambo movie follows the successful revival of another hit Stallone character from the Eighties - Rocky, whom he brought out of retirement in 2006.

And Sly admitted that his desire to revisit both Rocky and Rambo was partly borne out of his dissatisfaction with the last installments of both series. But he claims Rocky and Rambo are very different men.
--- ANI
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Prostitution Thrives in Afghanistan
The oldest profession is alive and well in carefully-concealed brothels and on the streets.
Institute for War & Peace Reporting By Sayed Yaqub Ibrahimi in Mazar-e-Sharif (ARR No. 279, 16-Jan-08)
“I do not enjoy being with men. I hate them. But to keep them as loyal customers, I pretend,” said the young Afghan woman.

Dressed in jeans and a tee-shirt, with shoulder-length black hair and wearing no makeup, 21-year-old Saida (not her real name) looked ordinary enough. But in this highly conservative society, she has sex with men for money, sometimes several times a night.

Saida’s father and older brother were killed in the civil war of the Nineties, and she lives with her mother and younger siblings in the northern city of Mazar-e-Sharif.

She has been a prostitute for six years, since the day her mother made a deal with a local pimp.

“One day an old woman came to our house,” Saida recalled. “She talked to my mother, and then took me to a house. A man almost 30 years old was waiting for me. He attacked me right away. It was horrible. I knew nothing; I felt only pain.”

According to Saida, she was left alone with the man for half a day before being brought home.

She told her mother what had happened, but she got no response.

“I now know she must have agreed because she was desperate,” said Saida. “I was in pain for a week. The old woman came again ten days later and took me back to that house. After that I started going on my own and getting money from rich people.”

Saida is now quite familiar with the world of prostitution, and accepts it as her lot in life.

“Having sex with men of any age or appearance is quite normal for me,” she said. “I don’t care who I spend the night with as long as I make a little money.”

She said she sometimes services five customers in one night, and has some regular clients, although she prefers to have a steady stream of new ones.

“My regular clients pay me less,” she explained. “The new ones give me a lot of money.”

Saida said that she charges from 1,000 to 2,500 afghani per night, between 20 and 50 US dollars.

“All men are the same to me,” she said. “At first I really hated fat men, or those whose bodies smelled bad, but now I don’t care.

She broadens her client base through referrals, and does not have a madam or pimp.

“Men give my telephone number to their friends, and that way I find new customers,” she said.

Afghanistan’s sex industry is booming, according to both private and official sources. Statistics are scattered, and few solid figures exist. But since the fall of the Taleban regime in late 2001, prostitution has become, if not more widespread, at least more open.

A police official in the northern province of Jowzjan, speaking on condition of anonymity, said that according to official figures, 2,000 families in his province alone had resorted to prostitution over the past 10 years. The true figure is likely much higher.

“The main factor is the lack of employment opportunities,” he said.

In many cases, prostitution becomes a hereditary trade, passed on from mother to daughter.

The Taleban strictly controlled sexual activity, meting out harsh punishments for extra-marital relations and adultery. Married women who had sex outside marriage were stoned to death; others were publicly flogged.

Sex outside marriage remains illegal in post-Taleban Afghanistan, and the prisons are full of women who have been convicted of “fornication”, a charge that carries a penalty of from five to 15 years in jail.

But this has not stopped women like Dilbar (not her real name), a 40-year-old madam who keeps a brothel in Mazar-e-Sharif.

Dilbar is a professional. She worked as a prostitute for many years, and has passed the trade on to her daughter, who helps her run the brothel. She no longer takes on clients herself.

“I am too old now,” she laughed. “I have children. But I help other girls to become prostitutes. I provide the means to make young men happy for a short time.”

Her customers call her “Khala” - “Auntie” - as a sign of respect.

Dilbar has ten girls who operate out of her brothel as well as making house calls on request. She requires a constant supply of new blood for her clientele, who are always seeking fresher delights.

“When I find a new girl I ask her to bring a friend,” she explained. “That way I get more and more girls. So I can get rid of those who become too old, or who get used up.”

Since prostitution is illegal, Dilbar has to be careful. She does not often allow customers to spend the night, to avoid attracting her neighbours’ attention.

“Most customers just spend a few hours during the day,” she said. She charges from 1,000 to 2,000 afghani, depending on the girl. “The younger, fresher ones get more,” she explained. She shares the proceeds with the girls, but did not divulge her percentage.

The business end of things has been made much easier by the mobile phone. Dilbar moves house frequently so as to avoid detection. With a mobile phone, she can alert her regular customers to her new location.

“Before we had mobile phones, I had to spend a longer period in each house,” she said. “Then when I moved, I would have to go personally to my customers to tell them where we were. These mobile phones are a great help.”

The capital Kabul, too, has its bordellos. In addition to a number of Chinese “restaurants”, which employ imported prostitutes and cater to an international clientele, the city sports several venues such as the house run by Kaka Faiz (again, not his real name).

The charges are steeper in the capital, with Kaka Faiz charging up to 100 dollars for a night with one of his girls.

“We address the needs of young men,” he said. “They exist, so we exist.”

Most of Faiz’s girls are under 25, and he has a well-heeled clientele.

“The men who come to my house work in NGOs [non-government organisations], and some of the city’s wealthiest people also come,” he boasted. “I have placed this entire house at their service, and they can feel quite safe and secure.”

Azita, 19, is one of Faiz’s girls.

“I do not want to do this,” she said, tears rolling down her face. “But I only have eight years of schooling. I wanted to become a doctor, but I couldn’t complete my studies. This is the only job open to me.”

While unhappy with her fate, she does not blame Faiz, who offered her assistance when she needed it.

“I did not know any boys, and they did not know me or my address,” she explained. “So I meet them in Faiz’s house. He is a good man. Even when there were no customers, he gave me some money. Otherwise, our family of six would die of hunger.”

Organised brothels may offer the girls some protection from the tougher customers.

Latifa, 25, who operates independently, complains that many of her clients are swindlers who refuse to pay after sex.

“Some men try to make us smoke or drink,” she said. “One night two men invited me to their house and said they would pay me 2,000 afghani. They offered me a drink, but I said no. Then they demanded that I have anal sex with them. When I refused they threw me out of the house at midnight, without paying me anything.”

But it’s not all bad, she added.

“There are a few good men who honour their agreement and pay in advance,” she said.

Street prostitutes have a difficult time.

Roya (not her real name), is 25 and comes from Pul-e-Khumri, but now lives in Mazar-e-Sharif, about two hours away.

She is a full-time beggar, and also performs sexual services for money. She goes into shops and offers to have sex with the owner for the equivalent of four dollars.

“Otherwise I have to stand out on a busy street for hours to make one afghani,” she complained. “I have been begging since I was a child. But when I got to be an adolescent, men would humiliate me and try to touch me. So I started having sex for money.”

Taxi drivers are a rich source of information on prostitution, since they interact with so many different types of people.

“I know an old man who came from a foreign country,” said a cabbie in Mazar-e-Sharif. “He didn’t know the city so he asked me for help. He likes young girls. So I took him to a few places. Now we both go once a week. He meets one young girl, and I get another one. He pays for us both, and then he gives me six times the usual taxi fare.”

One young man in Balkh province was unapologetic about visiting prostitutes.

“It’s entertainment - what else are we supposed to do?” he said. “I have relations with a lot of girls; they come to my shop and I pay them. It is good for both sides – I am not married, and they make money.”

The market was completely unregulated, he added.

“We pay from 100 to 5,000 afghani [two to 100 dollars] depending on age and beauty,” he said. “Half the population is involved in this type of activity.”

With so much underground sexual activity, the risk of disease is high.

Doctor Khalid, who runs the AIDS Public Awareness section of a Mazar-e-Sharif clinic, said the Afghan public is woefully ignorant of the risks of HIV infection.

“There are many factors in the transmission of [HIV/] AIDS,” he said. “But the main one is illegal and unhealthy sexual relations.”

When a prostitute has sex with many clients, there is scope for passing on not only the HIV virus which causes AIDS, but also other diseases such as syphilis and certain strains of hepatitis, the doctor explained.

“The campaign for public awareness is not satisfactory,” he complained. “Most people are not aware of the dangers.”

Exact figures are unreliable, but the Afghan health ministry listed 75 recorded cases of HIV in August 2007, representing a fourfold increase in just six months. The actual figure is likely to be exponentially higher.

If Dilbar’s views are any indication, Doctor Khaled is right to be worried.

“AIDS, shmaids!” laughed the brothel owner. “AIDS doesn’t exist in Afghanistan. I’ve never heard of anyone getting infected with AIDS. Here a girl will have sex with three men in a day without using a condom. These condoms are some kind of foreign thing. Myself, I’ve never used one.”

The police say they are clamping down on prostitution.

“We are quite serious about eliminating these centres of prostitution,” said General Sardar Mohammad Sultani, the police chief in Balkh province, of which Mazar-e-Sharif is the main town. “Now no one dares to do this openly. If there are such centres, they are hidden, and those who use them are so skilled that the police do not know they are there.”

But one young man who had been arrested for having had unlawful sexual relations told IWPR that many prostitutes operate in collusion with the police.

“I once had an appointment with a girl at her house,” he said. “Ten minutes after I got there, the police showed up and took me to jail.”

He explained that this happened because he had not yet figured out how the system worked.

“Last year, I was taking a woman home. She was wearing a burqa, but the police stopped us and said they recognised her as a prostitute. She had a good laugh with the police, who demanded money. I gave them 100 dollars and they let me go.”

Police chief Sultani denies that his men are complicit in prostitution.

“If anyone has any evidence, they should come to us,” he said. “If we do not take action, then people can hold us responsible.”

Dilbar, the wily madam, just laughed when asked about police corruption.

“We have always existed, under each and every government. So have the police,” she said. “Somehow we find a way to do our job and keep everyone happy.”

Sayed Yaqub Ibrahimi is an IWPR staff reporter in Mazar-e-Sharif.
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Pakistani forces say kill up to 90 militants
Fri Jan 18, 2008 9:32am EST By Augustine Anthony
ISLAMABAD, Jan 18 (Reuters) - Pakistani forces killed up to 90 militants in two battles on Friday in the South Waziristan region on the Afghan border, the military said.

The clashes came two days after hundreds of militants overran a paramilitary fort in another part of South Waziristan, dealing the military a setback in its efforts to defeat the al Qaeda-linked militants.

In one incident on Friday, government forces attacked a large number of militants who had gathered to attack another attack fort in the region, at Ladha, killing 50 to 60 of them. The rest dispersed, said military spokesman Major-General Athar Abbas.

"The miscreants, these terrorists, wanted to probably attack another fort and they were gathering there. Therefore, the security forces took action in retaliation," Abbas said.

Security forces used artillery and mortars to attack the militants and suffered no casualties, he said.

In the second incident, militants ambushed a convoy and 20 to 30 of them were killed when security forces fought back, he said.

"We had a convoy passing through Chaghmalai and these miscreants started firing on the convoy. The security forces retaliated and there was a firefight for an hour or two and then the security forces cleared the area," he said.

Four members of the security forces were wounded in the second clash, he said.

Both clashes were in areas of South Waziristan where an al Qaeda-linked militant leader, Baitullah Mehsud, operates.

The government said Mehsud was behind the assassination of opposition leader Benazir Bhutto in Rawalpindi on Dec. 27.

CIA CHIEF BLAMES MEHSUD
Mehsud has been blamed for a string of other attacks on security forces in recent months, compounding a sense of crisis in the nuclear-armed country as President Pervez Musharraf has struggled to hold power in the face of protests from opponents.

The government says the militants are intent on destabilising the country in the run-up to a Feb. 18 general election that is meant to complete a transition to civilian rule.

A spokesman for Mehsud was not immediately available for comment. Residents of South Waziristan said they had heard the sound of explosions on Friday.

CIA Director Michael Hayden, in an interview with the Washington Post published on Friday, also blamed Mehsud for Bhutto's murder.

"This was done by that network around Baitullah Mehsud. We have no reason to question that," Hayden said.

His comments were the most definitive public assessment by a U.S. intelligence official of who was responsible for the assassination of the former prime minister. He declined to discuss the intelligence behind the CIA's assessment.

Security forces have been battling al Qaeda-linked militants in South Waziristan for several years. The mountainous region, occupied by conservative, independent-minded Pashtun tribesmen, has never come under the full authority of any government.

Militants flocked to Waziristan and other parts of the Afghan-Pakistani border in the 1980s to support U.S.- and Saudi Arabian-backed Afghan guerrillas fighting Soviet troops in Afghanistan.

Many al Qaeda and Taliban members took refuge on the Pakistani side of the border after U.S.-led troops ousted the Taliban government in Afghanistan weeks after the Sept. 11, 2001, attacks on the United States.

From remote border sanctuaries the militants have been launching raids back into Afghanistan, and increasingly into populated parts of Pakistan.

Pakistani forces have been trying to expel foreign militants and subdue their Pakistani allies along the border, where Osama bin Laden is also believed to be hiding. (Additional reporting by Robert Birsel)
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Tripartite meeting on border security begins
By Aamir Khan - 15/01/2008 - 14:53
ISLAMABAD, Jan 15 (PAN): Afghan, Pakistani and NATO officials are meeting in Khyber Agency on improved border security aimed at curbing movements of unwanted elements, an official said on Tuesday.

Landikotal-based government official Abdul Majid, speaking to Pajhwok Afghan News by phone, said participants of the tripartite meeting would discuss a string of proposal to beef up security along the Durand Line.

During the session at the Landikotal Cantonment, military authorities from the three sides were to explore ways of implementing suggestions for dealing with militant-linked violence in border areas, Majid continued.

Previously, Kabul and Islamabad traded blame for increasing rebel activities in the region but now they are sitting across the negotiating table in an effort to find a lasting solution to their common problems, the official maintained.

Senior military officers are attending in the meeting, according to Majid, who would not name the participants for security reasons.

Meanwhile, residents and drivers said paramilitary troops had stepped up security checks on the
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Over 100 illegal Afghans detained in Peshawar
By Janullah Hashimzada - 15/01/2008 - 17:53
PESHAWAR, Jan 15 (Pajhwok Afghan News): Police in the North West Frontier Province (NWFP) have detained more than 100 Afghan refugees having no legal documents.

The arrests came as police stepped up security checks at all entry points as part of efforts to ensure security for the Ashura Day. But the Afghans complained they were held while going to the city for routine activities.

An official, who did not want to be named, told Pajhwok Afghan News provincial police chief Sharif Virk had ordered policemen to prevent refugees entering Peshawar.

In compliance with the directives, the source added, more than 100 Afghans having no legal documents were rounded up over the last three days.

Meanwhile, four refugees were detained on suspicion of having links to the al-Qaeda network in Bara area of the Khyber Agency. They were handed over to Afghan border police in Torkham on Monday.
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Remains of Russian crew handed over to elders (Updated)
By By Sher Ahmad Haider & Javed Hamim - 15/01/2008 - 11:18
GHAZNI CITY/KABUL, Jan 14 (Pajhwok Afghan News): Dead bodies of a dozen Russians, killed in the shooting down of a helicopter in southern Afghanistan in December 2006, have been handed over to tribal elders, Taliban said on Monday.

Purported rebel spokesman Zabihullah Mujahid told Pajhwok Afghan News over the telephone they had preserved the corpses of the Russians, whose chopper had been shot down in the Shah Walikot district of the restive Kandahar province.

The low-flying helicopter was mistaken for an enemy copter and our forces shot it down, Mujahid said, adding the bodies were transferred to elders yesterday after the Taliban were convinced the Mi-25 cargo chopper had been hired by NATO forces.

Asked why the corpses were given to the tribal chieftains, the spokesman replied: Since Russians are neither a party to the conflict in Afghanistan nor our direct enemies, we took the step on the basis of goodwill and good intentions.

Following the incident, Mujahid continued, Russian authorities had contacted Taliban through Afghan elders for the transfer of the dead bodies. On Sunday, he said, the insurgents shifted the bodies along with gifts to tribal notable of Shah Walikot.

Approached for comments, officials at the Russian Embassy in Kabul said they would neither confirm nor deny the news at this point in time. The press office at the embassy would issue a statement about it on Tuesday, they added.

Verifying the Taliban statement, the International Committee of the Red Cross (ICRC) said it participated in the handover of the remains that were thought to be those of members of the Russian crew.

The humanitarian organisation was requested by both the armed opposition in the area and the Russian authorities to act in its capacity as a neutral intermediary to facilitate the process that resulted in the recovery and handover of the remains.

ICRC delegation head Reto Stocker stressed that the handover went ahead without conditions and on exclusively humanitarian grounds, said a statement issued here by the Geneva-based institution.

On December 2, 2006, Taliban claimed hitting the Nato-chartered helicopter soon after it left Kandahar for the Tirin Kot base in Uruzgan. Then Taliban spokesman Yousuf Ahmadi, who is now in detention, moved swiftly to assert: "We shot down the aircraft with a single rocket."
Translated & edited by S. Mudassir Ali Shah
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