Pipeline Plan as Taliban Seize Towns

by Alex Spillius
The Telegraph
August 13, 1998

As the Taliban continued its relentless drive through enemy territory yesterday with the capture of three more northern towns, the Islamic militia pressed its claim for international recognition.

Apart from confirming the legitimacy of the fundamentalist movement, which now controls 90 per cent of Afghanistan, recognition would enable the construction of a lucrative gas pipeline through the war-torn country. The proposed route is now in Taliban-held land.

So far, the Taliban government has been recognised only by Pakistan, Saudi Arabia and the United Arab Emirates, and its seat at the United Nations is taken by the government of President Burhanuddin Rabbani that it ousted two years ago.

CentGas, the consortium behind the £1.2 billion pipeline, which would run from Turkmenistan, through Afghanistan and into Pakistan, is ready to proceed. Its main partners are the American oil firm Unocal and Delta Oil of Saudi Arabia, plus Hyundai of South Korea, two Japanese companies, a Pakistani conglomerate and the Turkmen government.

The Taliban's deputy information minister, Abdullah Rahman Hodaqi, said: "Even before these recent captures we were fully qualified for recognition, but all excuses for denying recognition have now gone. In the past, people used to see the fighting close to where the pipe would go, but there is none now. Transit fees from the pipeline would be the economic backbone of the country and provide thousands of jobs in construction."

The £600 million in loans the consortium is hoping for from the World Bank and other international institutions to finance the project would very probably be conditional on UN or United States recognition of the Taliban. Diplomatic sources said the Taliban's offensive was well prepared and deliberately scheduled two months ahead of the next UN meeting on accreditation.

But Russia will present stiff opposition. Since the anti-Taliban Northern Alliance lost its capital, Mazar-i-Sharif, at the weekend, Moscow has said it will defend the borders of former Soviet states along northern Afghanistan and has placed its 25,000-strong peacekeeping force on high alert.

Russia's alarm heightened yesterday when the Taliban seized Hairatan, a river port close to Uzbekistan, whose troops were immediately put on alert in case fighting spills across the border. Central Asian states fear that a Taliban-dominated north would bring an influx of refugees and of weapons to fundamentalist insurgents. The Afghan Islamic Press, which is based in Pakistan and has links to the Taliban, said 200 opposition fighters had been arrested after a brief clash with the forces of the ethnic Uzbek faction leader Gen Abdul Rashid Dostam, who is thought to have fled the country several days ago.

The capture of Hairatan denies the factions of the Northern Alliance another vital supply point for military and other goods, following the loss of Taloqan, the north-eastern air base, on Monday. The Taliban's spokesman at its headquarters in Kandahar said the militia had also taken Pul-i-Khumri, an important strategic town in Baghlan province.

The Afghan Islamic Press also reported that Nahrin, an important supply point for the Taliban's most formidable foe, Gen Ahmad Shah Massoud, had fallen yesterday, with the capture of 600 fighters, 12 tanks and thousands of guns.


© Copyright of Telegraph Group Limited 1998

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