London, 13 February 1998 (RFE/RL) -- The EU is stepping up a drive to help the Central Asian countries and Iran combat the smuggling of narcotics along new routes from Afghanistan, source of much of the opium and heroin reaching European cities.
The new drug routes cross north from Afghanistan over the former Soviet republics of Kazakhstan, Uzbekistan, Tajikistan, Turkmenistan, and Kyrgyzstan, and to the west over Iran.
Diplomats say the new trafficking routes have opened up since the 1991 break-up of the Soviet Union which led to a relaxation of what was one of the longest and most closed borders of the world.
The drug mafias have opened up the new smuggling routes in addition to established routes through Iran-Turkey-Balkans, Pakistan-Persian Gulf, and Caucasus-Russia-Europe.
After talks in the British city of Birmingham last month, EU justice and home affairs ministers adopted a new tougher approach to the smuggling from Afghanistan, said to be the world's largest producer of opium (2,800 tones in 1997), and source of up to 95 percent of the heroin reaching drug abusers in European cities.
The EU's new "Common Position on Aghanistan" was adopted at the initiative of Britain, which holds the EU's six-month rotating presidency, and has identified organized crime and drugs as one of its three main priorities (along with enlargement and job creation).
As part of this drive, Foreign Secretary Robin Cook yesterday announced a $800,000 contribution to a program launched by the U.N's International Drug Control Program which aims to help Iran and Pakistan combat opium and heroin traffic from Afghanistan.
The South West Asia Borders project, which includes similar initiatives in the Central Asian republics, is part of the UNDCP's strategy to set up a "security belt" around Afghanistan, a zone in which the drug mafias will find it hard to conduct their trade.
U.N. officials are training police, border and customs officers in the Central Asian countries and Iran to identify narcotics and their handlers, and to provide them with communications equipment.
Academic experts say the Central Asian nations are vulnerable to drug mafias as most are small with no real history of independence; some are unstable internally; and they face the problem of coping with "the inherent weakness of post-Soviet statehood."
One of the countries most affected by drug smuggling, Tajikistan, has suffered a four-year civil war and the collapse of central power, a situation exacerbated by the drugs gangs, whose violence and crime have made the situation "intractable for conflict resolution."
But, western diplomats have been encouraged because the Central Asian authorities have been actively seeking outside help in tackling their narcotics smuggling and other problems.
And British diplomatic sources say Iranian authorities, too, have been "extremely cooperative and helpful in instigating checks against drugs smugglers", both to prevent the flow of hard drugs to Europe, and also to stop them reaching young Iranians (in a country where 51 percent of the 60 million population is under the age of 19).
In his remarks yesterday, Cook said further cooperation is essential to stop the flow of heroin from Afghanistan.