Karzai grills British officials over 'illegal' poppy crop spraying

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The Independent Online

British officials in Kabul have been questioned by President Hamid Karzai after fields were reportedly sprayed with chemicals from the air two weeks ago, leaving farmers sick. The Kabul government is keen to find out who could have carried out the alleged spraying, which it considers illegal, despite a stated desire by the US and United Nations to wipe out the opium crop.

British officials in Kabul have been questioned by President Hamid Karzai after fields were reportedly sprayed with chemicals from the air two weeks ago, leaving farmers sick. The Kabul government is keen to find out who could have carried out the alleged spraying, which it considers illegal, despite a stated desire by the US and United Nations to wipe out the opium crop.

The Afghans set up an inquiry into claims by villagers near the eastern city of Jalalabad that mystery aircraft had sprayed crops. The British ambassador was called in for questioning and a protest was lodged with the US after Afghan officials concluded that fields had been crop-dusted despite Mr Karzai being opposed to spraying.

Britain, which takes a lead role in drug eradication, is opposed to aerial spraying, which is credited with massive reductions in cocaine output in Colombia but at a heavy cost in damage to human health and the environment. Many in Washington have been pressing for aerial eradication to begin in Afghanistan, however.

Advocates have lined up private US contractors who have already scoured the region looking for planes and pilots to hire for large-scale operations as early as next spring, before the poppy harvest begins.

Pressure for dramatic action against Afghan opium production has been racked up by a UN report released two weeks ago which found that the area under poppy cultivation has increased by 64 per cent in the past year. The report said Afghanistan is turning into a narco-state.

Last month, the US announced it was making an extra $780m (£410m) available to fight the drugs trade, including funds for alternative crops, important dealers being arrested, and poppy fields being eradicated. Most eradication is expected to be done by teams of men working in the fields.

Afghans and most aid workers fear that aerial eradication would destroy legitimate crops and could spark rural rebellions if farmers' livelihoods are wiped out from the air. Farmers make 10 times as much money growing poppy as wheat, and most complain that producing opium is the only way to survive.

President Karzai's spokes-man Jawed Ludin said that a government investigation confirmed that chemicals had been already sprayed, probably from the air. "It is not just serious for us because of some health problems, it is not just serious for us because it harms the other crops," he said, "it is being taken very seriously because it affects the national integrity of our country."

Mr Ludin said an investigation of soil samples taken in the Shinwar and Khogyani districts of Nangarhar province was continuing and that the government had yet to discover who was responsible. The province's governor, Din Mohammed, was one of those who pointed out that the US effectively controls Afghan airspace.

Dozens of farmers in the area complained to doctors of being sick after planes sprayed a "snow-like" substance. Mr Ludin said, however: "The governments of the USA and Britain have assured us that they also strongly subscribe to the policy that the government has on aerial spraying."

He said President Karzai had received assurances that they "have never in the past and will never in the future support any aerial spraying".

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