HTTP/1.0 200 OK Content-Type: text/html Afghans Say No Evidence That Opium Fields Sprayed
Pubdate: Wed, 09 Feb 2005
Source: San Diego Union Tribune (CA)
Copyright: 2005 Union-Tribune Publishing Co.
Note: Does not print LTEs from outside it's circulation area.


KABUL - Afghan investigators sent to investigate fresh reports that
opium fields had been aerially sprayed with pesticide in violation of
official policy found no evidence that it had occurred, the government
said on Wednesday.

Officials and villagers in the southern province of Helmand, a major
poppy-growing area, said this week that several aircraft had sprayed
pesticide on opium fields in four villages last Thursday, prompting
the dispatch of Interior Ministry investigators.

"There was no evidence of aerial spraying for eradication of poppy,"
General Mohammad Dawood, the deputy minister of interior for counter
narcotics, said in a statement.

"The MOI investigation team found that a naturally occurring disease
affected those four villages in Helmand province."

Dawood did not identify the disease but described reports that
spraying had happened as "propaganda" by enemies of Afghanistan who
wanted to create misunderstandings between local people, the
government and the international community.

The statement said about 150 residents of the province had complained
that they were suffering from skin diseases and that livestock had
been affected. It said the investigators had brought samples to Kabul
for tests.

Government spokesman Jawed Ludin said on Tuesday that aerial spraying
of opium fields had occurred in the past even though this was against
government policy.

He said the United States, whose troops overthrew the former Taliban
government in late 2001, scrapped plans to eradicate opium crops by
aerial spraying after President Hamid Karzai declared his opposition
to it last year.

Afghanistan's air space is tightly controlled by U.S.-led forces, but
the U.S. military and government has repeatedly denied involvement in
spraying of opium fields.

Wednesday's Interior Ministry statement came a day after the U.S.
embassy said there was "no credible evidence" that aerial spraying had
taken place in Helmand.

U.S. ambassador Zalmay Khalilzad has suggested in the past that such
reports could have been concocted by drug lords to thwart
international efforts to cut production of narcotics.

Karzai took his position after reports of a mystery spraying of opium
fields in an eastern province last year.

The government has expressed concern that aggressive eradication would
deprive farmers of their livelihoods and risk feeding the Islamic
insurgency in the south where most opium is grown. It has expressed
concern that spraying could harm health.

Afghanistan is the world's leading producer of opium and its
derivative, heroin, and output soared to near record levels after the
Taliban's overthrow. The United Nations says drug exports now account
for more than 60 percent of the economy.
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