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Central Asia: Region Tries To Deal With Narcotics Problem

Vienna, 22 April 1998 (RFE/RL) -- Five Central Asian countries have appealed to the OSCE and other international institutions for more assistance in the fight against drug trafficking, particularly from Afghanistan.

OSCE chairman Bronislaw Geremek said concern about the drug trade was discussed by most leaders last week during his tour of Turkmenistan, Kazakhstan, Kyrgyzstan, Tajikistan and Uzbekistan.

The presidents of Tajikistan and Uzbekistan, Emomali Rakhmonov and Islam Karimov made a strong appeal for more decisive action to control drug smuggling from Afghanistan.

Afghan and Iranian drug smugglers transport drugs through all five central Asian states to western Europe, Russia and other CIS states. The Uzbek president, Islam Karimov, described Afghanistan as "the most dangerous center for drug production and smuggling." He also accused Afghanistan of trying to destabilize Central Europe by encouraging the activities of Islamic fundamentalists.

Afghan drug smugglers are said to use every conceivable form of transport to take narcotics across central Europe -- road transport, railways and river boats. On October 31 last year Turkmen customs officers at Kushka on the Afghan border discovered more than a thousand kilos of heroin under a cargo of pomegranates being transported from Herat, about 100 km south. In September half a ton of heroin was detected at the same border post. Other border authorities have found Afghan narcotics in sacks of caraway seeds being exported to Germany and in sacks of rice from Pakistan.

One of the problems brought up by Central Asian political leaders in their talks with the OSCE chairman last week was the lack of funds to install modern detection devices. For instance, Kazakhstan says it has only 65 sniffer dogs to detect narcotics.

Last month the United Nations agreed to give 4.5 million dollars to Kazakhstan to improve technology for detecting illegal substances and also to found a center which will monitor drug use. But the Central Asian authorities say the need much more to be successful.

The Central Asian countries also lack means to monitor the transport of chemicals used in manufacturing drugs. Since 1995 Uzbek border authorities have detected 72 tons of chemicals on their way to Afghan narcotics factories. The chemicals are used in processing raw materials to produce heroin. In January this year, border authorities in Termez on the Amu-Darya river discovered 16 tons of an essential chemical hidden in containers supposed to be holding sewing machines. Some chemicals have even been hidden in toothpaste tubes.

But the drug problem is not just a matter of stopping the transit of narcotics from Afghanistan. There is also the problem of home-grown narcotics, particularly in Kazakhstan.

The deputy interior minister of Kazakhstan, Vasily Simachev, said recently that opium poppies, hemp and ephedra are grown on about one million hectares of his country's vast territory. According to some estimates as much as six thousand tons of "anasha" (hashish) are ripen in Kazakhstan's Chiu valley each year and people come from all corners of the CIS to harvest it. It is smuggled out to western Europe, to Poland and to the CIS states.

"Anasha" is also grown in large quantities in neighboring Kyrgyzstan, some of it around Lake Issyk-kul in the snow-capped mountains close to the Kazakh border. But hashish is the smaller problem. Authorities across central Asia fear there is a growing switch to heroin.

The trade in heroin, opium, hashish and other drugs has inevitably led to an increase in drug addiction inmost central Asian countries. In Kazakhstan, the authorities last year linked 22,000 crimes to drug use. Some 23,000 people are registered as drug addicts. In Kyrgyzstan, 3,130 crimes were officially linked to the use of narcotics. In Uzbekistan, at least 12,000 people are registered as drug users -- about nine per cent of them being women.

The amount of narcotics being trafficked in central Asia can be estimated. But just the statistics for last year released by Turkmenistan suggested the volume is large. Turkmenistan's officers seized and destroyed nearly 50,000 kilos of hashish, 2.3 tons of heroin and 7,505 kilos of opium. One can only guess at how much more was not found.