Nato hands over province to local forces

Afghanistan began the long-publicised transition to control of its own security amid secrecy, not fanfare, on Sunday, a reminder of how volatile the country is even as Nato troop drawdowns get under way.

Ministers flew to central Bamiyan province, one of the most peaceful places in Afghanistan, for a ceremony that was not announced in advance, did not run live on any TV channel and to which only a small number of media outlets were invited.

Nato will hand security over to the Afghan police and army in a gradual process due to be completed by the end of 2014, paving the way for most foreign troops to return home.

Security sources said there were serious fears of attacks in some of the seven areas chosen for the first phase of transition as the Taliban seek to underline their reach.

A spokesman for the Bamiyan provincial governor said a ceremony to mark the Afghan police taking the lead from New Zealand troops stationed there had begun at around 9 am (0430 GMT) and was continuing into the afternoon.

There is no Afghan army presence in Bamiyan province, but all the other transition ceremonies are expected to involve both the police and army taking over from foreign troops.

"The transition process has officially began in Bamiyan today and this is a national process we have been waiting for," said Abdulrahman Ahmadi, the spokesman for the Bamiyan governor.

"Bamiyan hasn't been suffering from any security threats, so the process will go on very smoothly," he said.

President Hamid Karzai has long pushed for the handover, and helped set the date for its completion, but did not attend the ceremony in Bamiyan.

His spokesman, Waheed Omer, was not available for comment, although repeated attempts were made to reach him.

The government in Kabul had also not commented by midday.

A spokesman for the Interior Ministry denied there had been any attempt to downplay the start of a process which both the Afghan government and its Western backers say is critical to the country's long-term stability.

"We waited for the official start, which happened in Bamiyan," said Sediq Seddiqi.

"There is no reason behind it," he said, adding that everyone knew the transition had been set for this week.

The Nato-led International Security Assistance Force also declined comment on the start of the handover, on the grounds that the transition process is led by the Afghan government.