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UN urges anti-drugs mandate for NATO Afghan force

Written by: Staff

BRUSSELS, Sep 12 (Reuters) The United Nations called for NATO states today to give their forces the mandate for robust military action against the Afghan opium industry, saying drugs and the Taliban insurgency fuelled each other.

The U N Office on Drugs and Crime announced last week a surge in Afghan opium cultivation of almost 60 percent and a nearly 50 percent surge in production to an unprecedented 6,100 tonnes, making Afghanistan virtually the world's sole supplier.

At a Brussels news conference, UNODC Executive Director Antonio Maria Costa called the figures ''staggering'' and warned it meant increasingly pure heroin would reach Western users and was likely to cause a surge in lethal drug overdoses.

''Counter-insurgency and counter-narcotics efforts must reinforce each other so as to stop the vicious circle of drugs funding terrorists and terrorists protecting drug traffickers,'' he said.

''I call on NATO forces to destroy the heroin labs, disband the open opium bazaars, attack the opium convoys and bring to justice the big traders. I invite coalition countries to give NATO the mandate and resources required.'' NATO, whose forces have been increasingly stretched fighting the Taliban in Afghanistan, says it is not in its mandate to lead the fight against drugs, but says it is willing to assist with intelligence and training of Afghan security forces.

The 26-member alliance does not want to get involved in eradication programmes it fears could spark a backlash by depriving many Afghans of their main source of income.

Costa said many of the poorer regions did not rely on the opium trade and said concerted action was needed, combining development assistance with eradication of illegal crops.

''WAR ON TWO FRONTS'' ''We are fighting a war on two fronts,'' he said, adding that the consequences of failing to act would be severe for heroin consuming countries. ''I fear that in 2007, once the new crop has reached the retail markets, Afghan opium will kill more than the 100,000 people of the recent past,'' he said.

Costa said it was vital for the Afghan government to prosecute big traffickers and attack drug-related corruption, while Afghanistan's neighbours must stop volunteers joining the insurgency and the traffic of chemicals needed to make heroin.

Afghan Counter Narcotics Minister Habibullah Qaderi conceded at the news conference that Afghanistan needed to do more to tackle corruption but said its allies needed to do more to assist development of security forces and rural development.

US State Department official Thomas Schweich told the briefing the surge in Afghan opium production reflected problems in the implementation of an anti-drugs strategy by the Afghan government and the international community.

He said this had improved in recent months, with more arrests and eradication, but more needed to be done. Eradication targets must be set and officials held accountable for them.

''Those who succeed should receive substantial development assistance ... but those who fail should suffer serious consequences,'' he said. ''The removal and punishment of corrupt officials in large numbers is essential.'' Schweich said the relationship between farmers, traffickers and insurgents was growing but was still relatively rudimentary.

''(But) if we wait to attack the problem, ties between the narcotics community and the insurgency will grow stronger.'' Columbia showed what could happen if the situation was not brought under control, he said. ''You get a well-financed, tenacious and resilient insurgency and you lose even more lives trying to stamp it out ... we should hit hard, we should hit now.'' REUTERS SAM BS1839

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