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Afghanistan: Heroin Trade Threatens Central Asian, Caucasus Countries

The annual report of the International Narcotics Control Board, which was released yesterday, notes with concern the growing role of Afghanistan as the world's main heroin producer. The UN agency says this flourishing trade poses a threat to Central Asian and Caucasus countries which lie along a major trafficking route. Correspondent Beatrice Hogan reviews the board's report.

United Nations, 24 February 2000 (RFE/RL) -- The narcotics control board report covered a wide range of issues related to drug trends both legal and illegal. This year it paid special attention, for example, to the lack of legal painkilling drugs in developing countries even though these drugs are easily available in the developed world.

But one of the board's primary functions is to oversee the world's three drug control treaties. And in charting areas of concern to drug control experts, the report focused on Afghanistan, which produces 75 percent of the world opium supply.

The UN agency called the Taliban's efforts to ban opium poppy cultivation and heroin manufacture "questionable" because the government continues to collect taxes on the crop.

The report noted a sharp rise in poppy production last year from the previous year -- an increase it partially attributes to good weather. The ruling Taliban, according to the report, controls almost all of the land where poppies are grown.

But the Taliban representative in the United States, Abdul Hakim Mujahid, challenges much of the UN report. Speaking to RFE/RL in a telephone interview, Mujahid, calls the UN report "propaganda."

He says it is the United Nations -- not his government -- that lacks commitment to eradicating the drug problem in Afghanistan. Inadequate funding from the United Nations and other wealthy countries, he says, has stymied his government's attempts to control drug production.

"We are ready to eradicate poppy cultivation in one year if there is cooperation from the United Nations Drug Control Program. Because first, religiously, we are against all kinds of intoxicants, including wine, drugs, hashish and marijuana. And secondly, it is not only harmful for the Western governments and their generation. It is also harmful in the long run to our new generation."

Crop substitution programs have proved very effective in a number of countries, including neighboring Pakistan. But such programs haven't been employed in a systematic way in Afghanistan, in part due to the ongoing civil war between the Taliban and an allied coalition of forces in the north.

Mujahid says Afghan farmers profit from poppy cultivation and, without economic incentives to change, will continue to grow illegal crops.

"If there is no crop substitution programs from the UN or from the big wealthy countries, alone it will be absolutely difficult for us to wage this kind of war against our own people. So we are in need of UN cooperation. But so far, the attitude of the United Nations is very biased and partial in this regard."

The international drug control board praised Iran's efforts to intercept illegal opium shipments. Iranian authorities have intercepted 80 percent of worldwide drug shipment seizures.

The drug control efforts on Afghanistan's western border, however, have encouraged smugglers to find alternative routes -- north through Central Asia.

Uzbekistan's ambassador to the United Nations, Alisher Vohidov, told our correspondent that Central Asia is especially vulnerable to trafficking because of its porous borders and transportation network.

"In Central Asia, we have a very developed infrastructure of transportation -- road transportation, train transportation, air transportation, too. In countries like Tajikistan, (drug traffickers) try to use the internal problems for their own benefit. And, of course, very attractive for them is that the borders between the Central Asian countries are transparent."

The board expressed concern about the rapid spread of illegal crop growth, trafficking and drug abuse in Central Asia and the Caucasus. The UN agency noted that the rise in regional drug abuse and trafficking, if left unchecked, could have a devastating effect on those societies.

It says the Caspian Sea is also being used to ship large amounts of both opiates and cannabis from Afghanistan through Turkmenistan to the Russian Federation and other countries in Europe. While heroin use in Western Europe has declined or leveled off, the report says, addiction in Eastern Europe is on the rise, especially in countries that intersect the drug trafficking routes.

A member of the narcotics control board, Herbert Okun, told a press briefing yesterday in New York that the board is especially concerned about Albania as a source of both illicit drug production and trafficking.

Okun said Albania has not signed any of the three international drug control treaties. He said it continues to be a major route for heroin trafficking into Italy and the rest of Europe despite the international attention it has attracted because of the conflict in neighboring Kosovo.

"This is a country that gets a lot of help from the international community, Albania, and is emerging as the Afghanistan of western Europe. So I think that is also a problem that has to be looked at."

Okun's board says in its report that countries throughout central and eastern Europe are being used as storage points for drugs, heroin in particular. It says these drugs are mostly destined for sale in western Europe, although also for local distribution.

In a related development, the board notes a growing spread of HIV infection in eastern Europe, mostly among intravenous drug users. It says the number of HIV-infected people in Latvia increased seven times between 1997 and 1998. It says there was an even higher rate of increased infections in the Moscow area in the first half of 1999 compared with the same period in 1998.