Afghanistan

Afghanistan: Key humanitarian route expected to reopen

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ISLAMABAD, 17 February (IRIN) - In Afghanistan, avalanches have blocked the Salang tunnel, the main access route from the capital, Kabul, to northern provinces and the only all-weather direct route between the north and south of the country. The tunnel has been blocked by heavy snow for the past three days, the longest closure this year, thereby severely hampering the movement of people and goods, including humanitarian supplies.
"Our aim is to keep it [the Salang tunnel] open every day. We are trying our best to open it soon," Stephane Nicolas, country director of the French aid agency, ACTED, told IRIN from Kabul on Monday. ACTED has sent experts to Salang, about 150 km north of Kabul, to clear the remaining snow - that could fall and block the route - with controlled explosions.

Built by Soviet engineers and opened in 1964, the Salang tunnel and road system provided the first direct year-round link between Afghanistan's northern and southern regions, which are bisected by the Hindu Kush mountain range. Earlier, goods being transported from the north to Kabul via the western city of Herat had taken about 72 hours to reach their destination. But with the opening of the Salang tunnel, that journey was reduced to less than 10 hours.

Rehabilitated during the Soviet era, the Salang pass soon became the country's economic and military lifeline. With the fall of President Najibullah's government in 1992, and the subsequent emergence of the Taliban in 1994, the Salang once again became the primary route of supply for the Northern Alliance until the fall of Kabul and the loss of the northern city of Mazar-e Sharif.

But following extensive bombing and a deterioration in the road system leading up to it, the tunnel was closed in mid 1990s - effectively isolating each of the two halves of the country. After the fall of the Taliban in late 2001, ACTED, in cooperation with the works ministry, the Halo trust, a group of Russian engineers and the United States Agency for International Development, cleared the tunnel of mines and rubble, and it reopened in February 2002.

According to ACTED, about 1,000 vehicles a day pass through the tunnel, carrying between 6,000 to 8,000 passengers. It is estimated that more than 70 percent of Kabul's fuel supplies pass via this route.

Nicolas maintained that one of ACTED's key interventions at Salang was traffic control, which was being threatened by armed local commanders who wanted to control the traffic as they saw fit. "In the past two weeks, there have been numerous security incidents. Some of them have involved our local staff being beaten by local commanders," he said, adding that the issue was being discussed with all authorities concerned. "Should the security of our staff continue to be jeopardised, ACTED will have no choice but to cease its operations," he warned.

According to Terry Toyota, head of the United Nations Joint Logistic Committee (UNJLC), keeping the tunnel open in Afghanistan's severe winter weather had been a real achievement. "In general, NGOs are doing a good job in keeping the access open," she told IRIN from Kabul.

UNJLC in partnership with many NGOs had contracted about 2,000 Afghans under its cash-for-work projects throughout the country to keep the routes open during the winter. "I think people come to accept that the tunnel might be closed for one or two days, which is a huge difference from past years," she added.

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