Afghanistan

Press Briefing: Head of Special Mission to Afghanistan

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Francesc Vendrell, the Secretary-General's Personal Representative and head of the Special Mission to Afghanistan, briefed correspondents at Headquarters this afternoon on his recent fact-finding trip to Afghanistan and neighbouring States.

Mr. Vendrell explained that, in addition to travelling to Kabul to speak with Taliban authorities, he had visited Iran, Tajikistan, Uzbekistan and the Russian Federation. He had also travelled to Dushanbe, Tajikistan, to talk to the United Front leaders.

He said he would brief the member States of the "Six plus Two" group (China, Iran, Pakistan, Tajikistan, Turkmenistan and Uzbekistan, plus the Russian Federation and the United States) at its senior-level meeting, to be held on Monday at United Nations Headquarters. This meeting would focus on cooperation to tackle the cultivation and trafficking of drugs.

The Secretary-General's decision that his Personal Representative should be based in the region was part of an effort to strengthen the United Nations capacity to assist in the search for solutions for Afghanistan, Mr. Vendrell said. For the same reason, the political posts in the United Nations Special Mission to Afghanistan (UNSMA) would soon be filled. He said he also planned to open an office in Tehran, to reopen an office in Kabul and to have more frequent contacts with the United Front authorities.

The UNSMA civil affairs unit, approved in December 1998, was now operational, with offices open in Kabul, Kandahar, Herat and Mazar-e-Sharif, he continued. He hoped to open an office somewhere in the far north, probably Feyzabad, soon. In addition an office was planned -- to be opened when the security situation allowed -- for Bamian, a region where the humanitarian and human rights situation had been of concern for several years.

As Personal Representative of the Secretary-General, his base of operations would be Islamabad (Pakistan), he said, although he expected to travel to Afghanistan, as well as to its neighbours, frequently.

Mr. Vendrell described his task as "challenging, to say the least", but noted that the Afghan parties had, in discussions with him, mentioned that they would be willing to enter into a ceasefire. This possibility, however, very much depended on how such a ceasefire would work and how it would be verified. Without verification, it seemed likely that any ceasefires would be temporary at best.

There was also general agreement that there should be a multi-ethnic representative government, he said, but the problem of what each side meant by this term remained. He would seek to clarify terms in further discussions with the parties.

The members of the "Six plus Two" group had reiterated their support for the Secretary-General's efforts, he said. He hoped that the group's efforts would be coordinated with, and geared to the same end as, the Secretary- General's efforts. He had found group members well disposed to push the peace process forward.

Asked about members of the "Six plus Two" funnelling weapons to their preferred side, he said he suspected the flow of weapons continued. Eventually a comprehensive settlement, including a ceasefire, was needed. However, it must be desired by the two sides, he added, and it was important to ensure that a means to verify its implementation existed.

Asked about Taliban involvement in the drug trade, he said that the drug problem certainly existed in the Taliban-controlled areas, but had also existed under previous governments. There had been a bumper crop last year, and as a result the percentage of drugs flowing from Afghanistan had increased, and not just from the area controlled by the Taliban.

The Taliban had told him they were opposed to the drug trade and to drug cultivation, and would, if they could get financial support for alternate crop cultivation, put a stop to it. However, such support was not forthcoming, in part precisely because of the Taliban engagement in the drug trade, along with their alleged support for terrorism, he said. This vicious circle must be broken.

Asked about the Taliban's capacity to govern without bloodshed, he explained that he had only made a day trip into Afghanistan, so he could not make a personal assessment, but that the Taliban certainly seemed to be able to maintain order in the areas under their control.

He said that media reports of some improvements in health, education and the treatment of women in the Taliban-controlled areas were borne out by reports he had received from the Office of the Humanitarian Coordinator for Afghanistan.

Asked for information about any changes in the Taliban position on sanctuary for alleged terrorist Usama bin Laden, he explained that the Taliban had expressed concern about their lack of international recognition. He had responded that one reason for this was a perception that they were either sponsoring or allowing terrorism, including by harbouring Mr. bin Laden. The Taliban representatives had stated that they were totally opposed to terrorism, but that Mr. bin Laden was a guest, that he had become a resident of Afghanistan prior to the Taliban taking control, and that he no longer had communication with his followers. This view was not one shared by some United Nations Member States, Mr. Vendrell said he had pointed out.

Regarding the Taliban's perception of the United Nations, he said the Organization had found it easier to operate in Afghanistan in the last two months. There were now several women employees of humanitarian agencies working actively and without problems inside Afghanistan. The Taliban had also accepted the opening of United Nations civil affairs offices in areas under their control -- as had the United Front -- and that was a welcome development, he added.