UN lifts sanctions on Kabul's airline and frees £221m assets

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The United Nations is to lift a ban on international flights by Ariana, the impoverished and war-battered Afghan national airline, as a first step towards quickly freeing the new government in Kabul from all international restrictions.

This week, the Security Council is also expected to approve a second resolution, ending sweeping sanctions imposed on Afghanistan when it was under Taliban rule. "We are bringing them back into the fold," one diplomat said.

The UN action will allow Washington to fulfil a promise it made earlier this week to release $221m (£153m) in assets that belong to Afghanistan and which were frozen in 1999. Most of them are in gold reserves.

All these steps are designed to bolster the new government of Hamid Karzai at a time when it is urgently appealing for resources. The UN has warned that his interim administration is almost out of money and needs cash quickly. "They need $100m in the next few days to pay back-salaries and have enough to pay the civil service and police for six months," Ahmad Fawzi, a UN spokes-man in Kabul, said.

Much symbolism will be attached to the readmission of Ariana to the aviation community. The International Air Transport Association said it owed $23.8m in over-flight fees to Kabul, withheld while the Taliban were in power. But with only one jet still functioning – many were damaged by American bombs while sitting on the asphalt – it will be many months, if not years, before the airline can restore even a part of its network worldwide.

But the UN is not simply jettisoning the wider sanctions regime, which was largely put in place because of the refusal of the Taliban to hand over Osama bin Laden for questioning in relation to his terror network, al-Qa'ida, and the 1998 embassy bombings in Nairobi, Kenya, and Dar es Salaam, Tanzania.

Instead, the resolution now before the Security Council refocuses the measures, including an arms embargo and a travel ban, on any groups or individuals deemed to be linked either to al-Qa'ida or the Taliban. A list of people to be subject to the provisions has been made, with most of the names supplied by the British and the Americans.

Final agreement was held up by last-minute debates on what criteria should be followed for adding new people or new groups to that list. France has also insisted that the measures be allowed to run for only one year before requiring renewal by the Security Council.

The total cost of rebuilding Afghanistan will be $15bn, spread over 10 years, says a study by the World Bank, Asian Development Bank and United Nations Development Program. Afghan officials say the cost is nearer $45bn.

A conference of donor countries is planned in Tokyo on 21 and 22 January.