Western diplomats expelled from Kabul

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Two senior Western diplomats were given 48 hours to leave Afghanistan yesterday after trying to negotiate with anti-government leaders in Helmand.

Michael Semple, the acting head of the European Union mission in Afghanistan and a close confidant of Britain's ambassador, Sir Sherard Cowper-Coles, and Mervin Patterson, the third-ranking United Nations official in the country, were detained yesterday by KGB-trained secret police.

They were accused of threatening Afghanistan's national security. President Hamid Karzai's spokesman, Humayun Hamidzada, said the two were "involved in some activities that were not their jobs".

The men were ordered out of Afghanistan after allegedly offering aid and development incentives to tribal elders in the Taliban heartlands. Diplomats say they were given until Thursday to leave, although there were hopes last night that a negotiated solution could be found as officials spoke of a "misunderstanding".

They were meeting government officials and tribal commanders connected to Musa Qala, a Taliban stronghold recently retaken in a major British-led assault and within sight of the strategic Kajaki dam. British troops spent Christmas in the town trying to kick-start development initiatives to win over the civilian population.

And it follows a pledge by Gordon Brown to increase tribal engagement in the area in a bid to secure a lasting peace, although British officials rule out talks with the Taliban's top leadership. However, Britain backs Mr Karzai's efforts to reach out to lower-level Taliban and their sympathisers.

British agents have begun talks with low-level Taliban leaders, as reported in The Independent on 12 December.

At least one important leader in Musa Qala decided to stop supporting the Taliban and aligned himself with the Kabul government, greatly assisting the battle to retake the town.

Helmand's governor, Assadullah Wafa, ordered the arrest of Mr Semple and Mr Patterson yesterday, senior diplomats said. The embattled governor, who is nearing the end of his first year in office, is reportedly facing the sack for failing to help curb violence in the province.

Afghan officials claimed the pair were arrested, but their diplomatic status means they have been ordered to leave instead. Their Afghan colleagues are being investigated.

But a spokesman for the UN, Aleem Siddique, said the arrest was a "misunderstanding", and strongly denied the pair had been holding talks with the Taliban. "We don't talk to the Taliban, full stop." He said: "We do not believe there is any basis for any UN official to need to leave the country, and we're making this position clear to the government of Afghanistan. We see this as a misunderstanding of what people were doing in Helmand.

"There is a miscommunication between the authorities in Helmand province and the central government, and that's what we're trying to clear up."

Both diplomats are believed to hold Irish passports. Mr Semple, who sports a chestnut beard and often wears local dress, has great experience in Afghanistan, speaking Dari and Pashtu. His expulsion would be a setback for the Western push to win "hearts and minds" at a time when Nato forces are struggling to hold terrain captured from the Taliban.

Mr Semple serves as deputy to the EU representative in Kabul, Francesc Vendrell. He has previously worked for the UN as acting humanitarian co-ordinator in Afghanistan. He was praised by the British ambassador in his blog in October as someone who "understands the grain and granularity of Afghan society better than almost any other foreigner".

Contacted by The Independent last night, he said it was "not a good time for me to talk", declining further comment except to say that a statement would issued from Brussels.

A relative said that Mr Semple had been in his office yesterday morning "and was even wearing a tie".