British forces stay away as Afghan opium war begins

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The convoys are formed, line after line, in the swirling dust of Lashkar Gar airfield - bulldozers, oil tankers and trucks bristling with guns. Afghanistan's opium war is about to begin.

The force to eradicate the poppy fields arrived at the capital of Helmand province from Kabul yesterday, and the programme will be under way in time, it is expected, for the weekend visit of President George Bush.

The policy is emotive and controversial. The poppy crop is the livelihood for many small farmers and their resentment is expect-ed to spark violence.

But Afghanistan's President Hamid Karzai, a beneficiary of Western largesse, is under pressure from the US and Britain to end his country's opium production, the biggest in the world and the source of much of the West's drugs. Helmand, which produces 25 per cent of the crop, has been chosen as a show of his government's toughness during the US President's visit.

The prospect of the farmers taking up arms and being joined by a resurgent Taliban and their Islamist allies has led to an eradication operation more military than agricultural in nature.

Britain, which is deploying a task force of 5,700 to Helmand, is working with the Afghan and US armies. "But this is just to make sure that we do not go anywhere near those areas," said Lt-Col Henry Worsley, the senior British officer in Helmand. "Our position is quite clear, we are not going to get involved in the eradication."

But British commanders worry their troops will be identified with Afghan forces and suffer the backlash.

Such is the local antipathy to the eradication programme that the bulk of the forces taking part have been sent from outside the area.

Plans are being drawn up for compensation payments in an attempt to head off the farmers' anger.

* A truce at Kabul's main prison was broken as rioting inmates tried to push down a gate and police fired on them, killing one and injuring three, officials said. Five inmates have now killed since rioting blamed on Taliban and al-Qaida detainees began on Saturday in a row over compulsory uniforms. At least 41 have been wounded.