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Archive for March 2007

Russia, Afghanistan may postpone debt deal signing

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MOSCOW, March 30 (RIA Novosti) – Russia and Afghanistan may postpone the signing of a bilateral agreement on the settlement of Afghan debt to the former U.S.S.R., which, according to Russian experts’ estimates, totals $10 billion, a source in the Finance Ministry said Friday.

According to Russian experts, 70% of the debt was provided to Afghanistan by the Soviet Union in the form of fighter planes, other heavy weaponry, spare parts and for services of Russian military experts. The other 30% remains unexplained and most likely consisted of civilian aid under programs to propagate communist ideas and to educate local officials.

The source said the sides may fail to draft the document by April when the signing was planned.

Russian Deputy Finance Minister Sergei Storchak said earlier the agreement may be signed at the spring session of the International Monetary Fund and World Bank in Washington in April.

Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov said during his visit to Kabul in late February that the debt settlement will help the two countries cooperate in economic and trade spheres and contribute to Russian investment in the Afghan economy.

Russia will write off Afghanistan’s debt under agreements reached as part of the Paris Club of Creditor Nations in July 2006. This move will help Russia raise its international authority.

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March 30, 2007 at 9:55 pm

Posted in Governance

Afghan airline set to collapse

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Debts, graft and mismanagement have brought Ariana Afghan Airlines, Afghanistan’s national carrier, to the brink of collapse.

BY JASON STRAZIUSO
Associated Press / March 30, 2007

KABUL, Afghanistan — Afghanistan’s national airline could be days from collapse due to corruption, mismanagement and a crippling airplane lease that has drowned the struggling airline in debt.

The government is scrambling to court investors to privatize up to 75 percent of state-owned Ariana Afghan Airlines and is tallying its assets in case the company is liquidated, an Associated Press investigation has learned.

The collapse of the 52-year old airline, which survived the Taliban regime despite international sanctions, would be a potent symbol of failure by the administration of President Hamid Karzai and would reinforce growing perceptions of corruption and incompetence.

”If Ariana collapses, it will be a very heavy blow for people’s trust in government,” said Ziauddin Zia, deputy commerce minister.

BLACKLISTED

Afghanistan would lose 50 percent of its international flight capacity. Ariana is blacklisted from flying to European Union countries because of safety concerns; it mostly flies to the United Arab Emirates, India and Turkey. U.S. Embassy and United Nations employees are also banned from flying the airline due to safety concerns.

Ariana’s former maintenance director told The Associated Press that the airline’s safety department issues licenses and certifications to mechanics and pilots in exchange for $200 bribes.

Yousuf Sultani, who left his post in February and now lives in the United States, also said Ariana has 500 people on its maintenance department payroll but that only 30 work.

Afghanistan’s transportation minister, Niamatullah Ehsan Jawid, acknowledged the airline is beset by corruption that prevents it from turning a profit. Ariana employs some 1,800 people but operates only seven planes.

Among the estimated $14 million in immediate debts Ariana owes is a $1.9 million bill to Chicago-based Boeing for two leased 757s, which must be paid by Saturday. Ariana also owes some $7 million to its Afghan fuel supplier, which could turn off the pumps any day.

”If they are patient, we can continue. If they are not, we will have to stop [flying] tomorrow,” said Abdul Rahman Sultani, Ariana’s vice president of finance. “Either the Afghan government helps us or we stop our service.”

Ariana owes $41 million overall, Sultani said. It earned $3 million profit last year on an estimated $74 million in revenue. It lost $25 million the year before.

Ariana’s acting president — engineer Raz Mohammad Alami, named last week after Ariana lost its second president in six months — hopes the United States will intervene and ask Boeing for leniency, though Boeing has already pushed back the due dates on some of the debts Ariana owes.

”My message for Boeing is that they are aware that the international community is helping Afghanistan, and Boeing knows that there was 25 years of war in this country,” said Alami, also the deputy transportation minister.

WANING LENIENCY

”We have been very lenient, and we will continue to do everything we can to help Ariana, just like we do all our customers,” said Brian Walker, Boeing’s communications director for the Middle East and Africa. He did not elaborate.

Since the fall of the Taliban regime, Ariana has received considerable foreign support. India donated Airbus jetliners to help the airline recover from the U.S.-led invasion, when six jetliners sitting on runways were bombed.

But Kabul’s debilitated airport still can’t provide satisfactory security checks, Jawid said.

”You can give a border police officer $50 and you can transport anything” on a flight, Jawid said.

CHAOTIC SERVICE

Flight schedules are erratic, flight attendants typically don’t conduct preflight seat-belt checks, and a pilgrimage flight to Mecca that Ariana chartered on a Boeing 747 this year carried 640 people — some 25 percent over maximum capacity, according to a company publication.

But it was the leased Boeing 757s — which Ariana was never able to use as it wanted — that could cause financial ruin.

The planes, contracted in 2005, couldn’t be delivered for over a year because of leasing agreements and security requirements, said Abdul Ahad Mansoori, Ariana’s former president. As the planes sat idle in London and Paris last year, Ariana was accruing about $1.1 million in monthly debt for the lease, parking, maintenance and flight crews, said Sultani, Ariana’s vice president of finance.

Afghanistan’s attorney general’s office is investigating whether any Afghan officials improperly benefited from the contracts. Deputy Attorney General Mohammad Aloko said the office hadn’t named any suspects, but Transportation Minister Jawid and other officials question whether former Ariana President Mohammad Nader Atash profited from the deal.

”I worked with integrity and honesty,” Atash said of his tenure between May 2005 and fall of 2006.

Atash, a university professor and researcher with no experience in the airline industry before his appointment, alleged that a high-level government mafia wants Ariana to fail so officials can start — and profit from — their own airline. He declined to name the officials, saying to do so could put him in danger.

”They thought that if Ariana is not there, it’s open season for themselves,” Atash said by phone from his home in Virginia.

Jawid said he would let 75 percent of Ariana be privatized if an outside investor wanted to take over the company. He said he planned to meet with executives from Dubai-based Emirates airline next week. Other investors are said to have expressed interest, but no firm offers have been made.

ANOTHER PROPOSAL

Jawid is also contemplating another proposal. He plans to ask U.S. Ambassador Ronald Neumann next week whether the United States could help with the Boeing contracts in exchange for the value of the planes bombed by the U.S. military during the invasion in 2001.

The U.S. Embassy said it wouldn’t comment until it saw the specifics of any such request.

At least Ariana’s Afghan-based fuel supplier, which is owed some $7 million, appears ready to grant the airline more leeway.

Abdul Ghafar Dawi of the supplier Dawi Group said he will continue to give Ariana the 60 to 80 tons of fuel it uses every day.

”Ariana is the dignity of Afghanistan,” Dawi said. “All my friends say it will collapse, but I love Ariana.”

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March 30, 2007 at 9:55 pm

Posted in Governance

Afghan Journalists Face Growing Pressure

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Tightening Grip on Press Puts Afghanistan’s Fledgling Democracy at Risk

By ALISA TANG
The Associated Press /  March 28, 2007

KABUL, Afghanistan – Political talk show host Razaq Mamoon never held back with the cameras rolling. He railed at former warlords now in government and accused Afghanistan’s Parliament of being a den of war criminals and drug smugglers.

Not surprisingly, he caught the attention of government leaders.

“I started receiving messages from them: ‘We don’t know who you’re with or who you’re against. You attack everybody,'” Mamoon said.

His employer, Tolo TV, came under intense pressure from government ministers, and soon Mamoon was fired, he said, though Tolo disputes that version.

Hailed as a major success of five years of democracy-building, media freedom in Afghanistan is under increasing pressures. Those include a proposed law that would cripple media rights, and threats and physical abuse of journalists by government and military officials.

“Effectively we’ve moved from an open media environment to a state-controlled media environment, which is a considerable turnaround from the direction media was heading in Afghanistan up until 2005-06,” said Adrian Edwards, spokesman of the United Nations Assistance Mission in Afghanistan.

The Afghan media has changed radically since Taliban times, when there were no television stations and only a handful of newspapers that were completely state-controlled. There was just one Taliban radio station broadcasting news and religious poetry but no music.

Now there are more than 40 private radio stations, seven TV networks, and more than 350 newspapers and magazines registered with the information ministry. Afghan TV broadcasts everything from breaking news to cooking shows and the local version of “American Idol.”

But critics say the new legislation, expected to be debated in Parliament within weeks, is an ominous sign that Afghanistan’s experiment with open media is on borrowed time.

Fazil Sangcharaki, chief of the Afghan Journalists’ Association and former deputy information minister, said the proposed law is being pushed by former warlords-turned-politicians who would rather have past deeds be forgotten, and by Islamists worried the media is corrupting Afghan culture.

If passed, it would give the Ministry of Information and Culture direct control of state-owned Radio and Television Afghanistan (RTA) and increased power over private media. It would even make it possible to jail journalists such as Mamoon for reporting news deemed “humiliating and offensive.”

Many journalists see it as a reaction to reporting on corruption and war crimes, and an attempt by President Hamid Karzai’s elected government that succeeded the fundamentalist Taliban regime that fell in late 2001 to reel in the free press.

“The government was not happy with my investigative work,” Mamoon said at the office of Emroz, the new media company where he now works. “The government is facing criticism, which is new for them. It is embarrassed.”

Tolo denies it fired Mamoon, saying the company was going to cut Mamoon’s salary for budget reasons, so he resigned of his own accord. Tolo believes firmly in free speech and will never succumb to government pressure, said Massoud Qiam, Tolo’s director of political programming.

The proposed law would turn RTA into a “state propaganda tool,” Edwards said. The information minister would be granted the power to appoint and pay commissioners who regulate the media.

“You don’t want to have a minister of information who can literally haul in journalists or influence private media through salaries of commissioners … That would be worrying in any country,” Edwards said.

Several vaguely-worded prohibitions in the law could be used to black out almost any news story.

It would prohibit the “propagation of religions other than the holy religion of Islam”; stories that “affect the stability, national security and territorial integrity of the country” and “articles and topics that harm the physical, spiritual and moral well-being of people, especially children and adolescents.”

UNAMA officials and others lobbying for press freedom have met with President Karzai and Information Minister Abdul Karim Khurram, but the outcome for the media is not clear.

Halim Tanweer, Khurram’s media adviser, said the information ministry believes “100 percent” in free speech and a free press.

“We broadcast any news in the national interest of the Afghan people,” Tanweer said. “We are trying to be impartial. (State TV) does not work for the government.”

However, evidence of efforts to muffle the media is rapidly piling up.

On Feb. 22 in the western city of Herat, Afghan police beat and confiscated the camera of an Ariana Television cameraman Eshaq Quraishi, who was filming a victim wounded by police gunfire at a protest, according to Afghan press rights organization Nai. A report by Nai quoted Herat police chief Ahmad Shafiq Fazli as saying that Quraishi “was not beaten up by the police … and their camera was stolen by protesters.”

And in a sign it’s not just Afghan authorities constraining the press, U.S. troops deleted the photos and video of Afghan journalists including a freelance photographer and a cameraman of The Associated Press covering the aftermath of a suicide bomb attack March 4 in eastern Afghanistan.

In Kabul, RTA television reporter Besoodi Forgh was dealt two black eyes by a team of seven men from the information ministry, he said. The men showed up in his newsroom late last month and accused him of spying for Iran. Two men held his hands behind his back, and one man punched him four times in the face and three times on back of the head.

“I’m not a spy. I’ve never even been to Iran,” he said.

He was fired.

But in a sign that Afghan journalists won’t bow down quietly, he’s gone public about his ordeal. Mamoon said he would stand up for his professional rights, “even if it costs me my life,” although he remains pessimistic about the future.

“The government has lost the trust of the Afghan media. The media is wondering who will defend us now? We have nobody,” Mamoon said. “This is very dangerous for Afghanistan’s democracy. There is no difference between Taliban times and now.”

Associated Press writers Amir Shah and Jason Straziuso contributed to this report.

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March 28, 2007 at 10:04 pm

Posted in Governance

AFGHANISTAN: Bird flu cases surge in new areas

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KABUL, 28 March 2007 (IRIN) – KABUL, 28 March 2007 (IRIN) – New cases of a deadly strain of bird flu have been confirmed in Afghanistan’s capital, Kabul, and in the southern province of Kandahar over the past week, according to the Afghan health ministry.

A dead bird found in the garden of the Turkish embassy in Kabul on 20 March was infected with the H5N1 deadly strain of the avian influenza virus, health officials confirmed to IRIN on Wednesday. A quarantine that had been imposed on the embassy compound was lifted after a team of medical workers from the health ministry completed a bird-culling operation there.

“The blood test of an embassy driver who was injured by a bird has shown no sign of avian influenza,” the ministry report said.

On 23 March, two more cases of bird flu were confirmed in Kabul, a city with an estimated population of more than 3.5 million people.

Over the past week, bird flu was also detected in the Damaan and Shah Wali Kot districts of Kandahar province in the south of the country.

Officials in Kabul say that insecurity is impeding their efforts to curb the spread of the virus in Shah Wali Kot, where insurgents have repeatedly attacked government employees.

In an effort to mitigate the outbreak of avian influenza in Afghanistan, the World Health Organisation (WHO) on 25 March called on Afghans to stop buying and selling live birds.

“To prevent transmission of avian influenza to humans, WHO is recommending that persons residing in Kabul, Nangarhar and Kunar provinces avoid the live bird markets until no disease has been reported for several months, because avian influenza can spread to humans from contaminated dust and feathers of infected birds,” WHO said in a statement.

In addition, WHO has requested Afghan bird-lovers to refrain from petting and touching their birds.

But given the important socio-economic role of birds in the life of many ordinary Afghans, both recommendations are difficult, if not unrealistic, for civilians.

“I have been doing this business [selling live birds] for over four years. I have no other means to feed my extended family,” said one bird-seller in Kabul.

Officials in Afghanistan’s committee against avian influenza said it would be difficult to close live bird markets in the country.

“I think both economically and socially it is impossible to close all bird markets,” Abdullah Fahim, a spokesman for Afghanistan’s Ministry of Health, told IRIN on Wednesday.

Afghanistan’s first bird flu case was reported in March 2006.

More than 20 cases of bird flu have been confirmed in the country since February, many in the eastern provinces of Nangarhar and Kunar.

The Afghan government has prohibited the importation of live birds and poultry products from neighbouring Pakistan where several cases of avian influenza have also been confirmed.

To date, no human case of bird flu has been confirmed among the estimated 25 million inhabitants of Afghanistan.

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March 28, 2007 at 10:03 pm

Posted in Health

OIC Fund for the Reconstruction of Afghanistan builds 16 health centres in Afghanistan

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Source: The Organization of the Islamic Conference (OIC)

Jeddah: 24 March 2007 – Prof. Ekmeleddin Ihsanoglu, Secretary General of the Organization of the Islamic Conference, received H.E. Sheikh Abdulaziz bin Abdurrahman Al Thani, Chairman of the Council of Trustees of the OIC Trust Fund for Assistance of Afghan People, who is attending the Fourth Meeting of the Council on the 25th of March.

The Chairman of the Council of Trustees briefed the Secretary General on the Fund’s activities during the past years, which included the drilling of 300 wells to ensure drinking water for different regions in Afghanistan, and the completion of the construction work of 16 health centres in different provinces, which have been handed over to the Afghan Ministry of Health to engage them in the service of the Afghan citizens.

The OIC Secretary General laid stress on the continuation of the Fund’s activities aimed at leveraging the reconstruction work in Afghanistan.

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March 27, 2007 at 3:58 am

Posted in Aid

U.S. wants Europe to send more troops to Afghanistan

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March 26, 2007

BRUSSELS (Reuters) – The United States urged European countries on Monday to provide more troops for Afghanistan and to free them up for combat, as well as to provide further aid to the war-shattered country.

Nicholas Burns, U.S. undersecretary of state, said Washington was grateful to European countries such as Britain, Estonia, Romania and the Netherlands which have troops operating in combat zones in Afghanistan.

“There is a need for a greater number of troops from Europe, for a greater degree of flexibility in how those troops are allowed to operate,” Burns told reporters in Brussels.

“The caveats, that limit the tactical deployments of troops inside the country, in our view should be lifted. All states should lift them and there should be additional economic and humanitarian aid,” he said.

The United States provides about 27,000 of the 45,000 foreign troops in Afghanistan.

Some European countries have resisted previous U.S. calls for their troops to be deployed in southern Afghanistan, the heartland of the Taliban insurgents, where the heaviest fighting has taken place.

Last year saw the worst violence in Afghanistan since U.S.-led forces ousted the Taliban from power in late 2001. More than 4,000 people died in fighting in 2006, including about 1,000 civilians.

Fighting is expected to be heavy in 2007. The Taliban have said they have prepared thousands of suicide bombers.

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March 27, 2007 at 3:58 am

Posted in Security

Afghanistan: Civilians caught in crossfire in south

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Source: United Nations Office for the Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs – Integrated Regional Information Networks (IRIN)

KABUL, 26 March 2007 (IRIN) – Fighting between international forces and Taliban insurgents in southern Afghanistan continues to claim the lives of civilians, local residents say.

In a mud-brick house in the Gherishk district of the southern Afghan province of Helmand, Ezatullah, 38, is thinking about moving to Kandahar.

“Every day we see nothing but fighting between the Taliban and foreign soldiers. One day, the Taliban take over a district and lynch locals whom they perceive as enemies; another day, foreign soldiers bombard and shell the area,” Ezatullah told IRIN.

Others in the area say that non-combatants have been directly affected by recent military operations.

“We were caught in crossfire,” said Abdul Samad, a resident of Gherishk. “I lost my niece in Thursday’s [22 March] fighting and some others also got killed or wounded in the same operation,” he added.

However, officials said no civilians were hurt in the recent military operation in the area, adding that Afghan and NATO-led International Security Assistance Forces (ISAF) killed more than 60 insurgents in Helmand on 22 March.

“No civilian has been killed or injured in the Gherishk operation,” said General Zahir Azimi, a spokesman for Afghanistan’s Ministry of Defence. “We did not use air strikes or artillery, only foot soldiers were sent to some specific areas to repel insurgents.”

The Taliban were ousted from power in October 2001, but its fighters have maintained a hit-and-run guerrilla war against US-led coalition forces and Afghan forces. Helmand – about 60,000 square km of plain land in the south of Afghanistan, an area more than half the size of Denmark – has been the stronghold of the mounting Taliban insurgency over the past three years.

More than 1,000 civilians were killed or injured in clashes between insurgents and ISAF in Helmand and neighbouring provinces in 2006, according to the New York-based NGO Human Rights Watch and other rights watchdogs.

Some 5,000 families have reportedly been displaced in the province since September 2006.

In February, General Abdul Rahim Wardak, Afghanistan’s Minister of Defence, confirmed reports that the Taliban had occupied Mosa Qala and two other districts in the province.

Karim Rahimi, a spokesman for President Hamid Karzai, said “the government is holding back its operation to drive out the Taliban from Helmand only to avoid civilian casualties”.

The Taliban have closed all schools in the areas under their control and have reintroduced their strict interpretation of Islamic law according to which men should grow beards, women should stay at home and no one should listen to music, local residents say.

The Taliban have reportedly beheaded dozens of tribal elders and other civilians whom they accused of siding with the US-backed government in Kabul.

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March 27, 2007 at 3:57 am

Posted in Security