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Afghanistan: ISAF Prepares To Leave Base At Kabul Airport

ISAF forces in Kabul on 6 February (epa) ISAF, the NATO-led stabilization force in Afghanistan, is taking steps to release much of Kabul's main airport to Afghan officials for civilian use. ISAF has had hundreds of troops based at Kabul Airport since late 2001 when the multinational force first deployed to Afghanistan under its UN mandate. But ISAF is building new facilities to the north of the main runway. It also is training Afghan staff to help Kabul take over buildings that house about 1,500 ISAF soldiers.

KABUL, 9 February 2006 (RFE/RL) -- Although ISAF accounts for only some 40 of the 130 flights leaving or arriving at Kabul Airport every day, its impact on the facility has been far greater.

A sprawling complex of ISAF buildings and equipment takes up about half of the land along the 3-kilometer runway -- the only operational runway at the airport. For civilian air traffic during the last four years, Afghan officials have operated a separate terminal building at the south end of the runway.

Civilian authorities increasingly want to draw distinctions between themselves and the foreign military authorities at Kabul Airport.

Giving It Up

But that will soon change, according to Konstantinos Prionas, who heads security at ISAF's part of the airport.

"For the military plans, hopefully, depending on the weather or some other constraints maybe we have by summer of [2007] all the works finished [in] the north part [and] we are ready after that to move to the north part of the airport."

Prionas says he expects demining operations to be completed within a few weeks. He says more construction will follow in the form of parking space for planes, a new taxiway, buildings, and other facilities.

Improved Infrastructure

Improvements at Kabul Airport -- as well as the airport in the western city of Herat -- have been listed by the Afghan government as top infrastructure priorities during the next five years.

"When all the plans will be [realized] and all the procedures [applied], [Kabul Airport] will be a real international airport with many flights."

Much work has been done in the four years since ISAF troops arrived. Most of the wreckage of Soviet and Afghan military aircraft destroyed during decades of war has been hauled away from along the runway. Deminers have located much of the unexploded ordnance and land mines there -- leaving behind red flags as warning markers. But officials say mines remain troublesome on some parts of the airport grounds.

Prionas says the airport will retain only a single operational runway.

He says ISAF has so far worked closely with Afghan civilians at the other part of the airport. The two sides share many facilities.

Hajj Help

ISAF played a significant part in supporting Muslim pilgrims who were traveling to Saudi Arabia this year for the hajj. Prionas says the NATO-led force helped some 25,000 pilgrims pass through Kabul Airport this year.

However, he says the civilian authorities increasingly want to draw distinctions between themselves and the foreign military authorities at Kabul Airport.

Prionas praises the Afghan airport authorities for making "major steps" towards being able to operate the airport independently.

ISAF is playing its part here, too. Prionas says that apart from other assistance, ISAF offers specialized training for crucial personnel.

"We have other training now [for Afghan air-traffic controllers]. Most of them, I can say, do very well. And maybe after eight months or 10 months [they] will be ready to take [over] the responsibilities [of] air-traffic controllers."

ISAF is currently also training Afghan meteorologists and firefighters.

Prionas says it will take years before Afghan civil-aviation authorities are able to run the airport independently of ISAF.

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