Afghanistan

Afghanistan: Salang tunnel reopens

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KABUL, 21 February (IRIN) - The Salang tunnel, a vital humanitarian link between the north and south of Afghanistan, has been reopened to traffic. The 2.6-km tunnel had been blocked by heavy snow for over a week - the longest closure this year.
"Our goal was to keep the Salang open as long as possible. We only closed it when the risk of avalanches was too high," the assistant country director for the Agency for Technical Cooperation and Development (ACTED), Farahnaz Karim, told IRIN in the Afghan capital, Kabul on Friday.

"Our priority is to keep the tunnel open to ensure the timely free movement of humanitarian assistance and to allow people to commute safely."

In an effort to reduce risk in the area, avalanche experts from a French NGO, working with the Afghan public works ministry and in close collaboration with the UN Mine Action Centre of Afghanistan, detonated a controlled explosion in the area before clearing the tunnel of snow.

"It was a joint project by the Ministry of Public Works and ACTED, David Singh, a spokesman for the UN Assistance Mission in Afghanistan (UNAMA) told IRIN.

Over the past weeks, the Salang area has experienced over 10 avalanches. In the context of a combination of heavy snowfall, strong winds and sunny weather, UNAMA concluded that a controlled explosion would reduce the risk of further avalanches in the area.

However, one public works ministry employee was killed and another injured during the operation after leaving the supervised area to view the blast and subsequent avalanches, Karim said.

Although the situation now appears under control, some security problems with local commanders have reportedly emerged. "Many times we had problems when we decided that traffic could only go one way, while local commanders said it could be both," the aid worker noted, adding that in three separate incidents, local ACTED staff had allegedly been assaulted by irate commanders who wished to control the traffic themselves.

The Salang pass continues to be a major safety concern in the country. In February last year, five motorists were killed and about 500 rescued when an avalanche ripped through the tunnel's southern entrance. The tragedy happened just a month after the tunnel had been reopened for the first time since 1997.

Built by Soviet engineers and first opened in 1964, the Salang tunnel and road system provided the first direct year-round link between Afghanistan's northern and southern regions. Earlier, goods being transported from the north to the capital, Kabul, via the western city of Herat had taken about 72 hours to reach their destination. With the opening of the Salang , that period was cut 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 the Afghan 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 - effectively isolating the two halves of the country from each other until January 2002, after which it was reopened by a team of international experts.

The reopening of the Salang is expected to continue to expedite international aid efforts in Afghanistan - particularly during the winter months when the country's most needy populations are inaccessible.

However, while the vital humanitarian lifeline is operational, full rehabilitation and maintenance of the tunnel remains a huge challenge that will require long term donor commitment.

[ENDS]

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