Sun, Nov 28, 2004 - Page 5 News List

Afghan farmers say crops poisoned

BAD HARVEST An Afghan doctor said patients with skin and other illnesses have increased after a foreign aircraft allegedly sprayed farmers' fields with a mysterious poison

AFP , Hakimabad,Afghanistan

In this picture taken Thursday, an Afghan farmer ploughs a field in preparation for the cultivation of opium poppies in the eastern Afghan province of Nangahar, near Jalalabad.

PHOTO: AFP

Instead of the handful of people with skin diseases he usually deals with, Dr. Mohammed Rafi Safi says he has recently treated 30 Afghan farmers who allege their opium crops were sprayed with poison.

The flood of patients in the past two weeks has come since farmers in part of eastern Nangarhar province alleged their opium poppies were sprayed with poison from the air earlier this month, destroying food crops and leaving many feeling ill.

"Other illnesses such as eye and respiratory problems have also increased," said the doctor at the 20-bed Khogyani District Hospital.

The Afghan government on Nov. 18 launched a probe into claims unidentified foreign troops sprayed fields in Hakimabad and neighboring villages in Khogyani, Shinwar and Achin districts, in one of the country's biggest poppy-growing regions.

The US military has denied any involvement, although the US has indicated it intends to take a tougher stance in future against the drug trade in the war-torn country.

"US troops are not involved in eradication, which would include the spraying of poppy fields which we do not do," US military spokesman Major Mark McCann told reporters last week.

But Nangarhar provincial governor Din Mohammed said there was "no doubt that an aerial spray has taken place."

"I don't know who might be behind this but you know the fact that the airspace of Afghanistan is under the control of the United States," he added.

Opium production in the country leapt by 64 percent this year from the year before, according to a UN report released last week. Afghanistan now produces more than 70 percent of the world's opium and heroin and 90 percent of the heroin on Europe's streets, it said.

Hazrat Mir, a farmer in Hakimabad village, about 50km southwest of the provincial capital Jalalabad, told reporters: "I got this sickness when I touched the chemicals sprayed from the air on our fields."

"My back, my arms and my legs, my entire body aches -- it is very hard," the 38-year-old said as he queued at the only hospital in the village to get free treatment.

Villagers said they became sick after a plane sprayed chemicals on their fields, destroying not only poppies but also fruit and vegetables. "I got this disease after I touched the spinach plants in our fields," said a burqa-clad woman named Kamina, while displaying her bony hands to a doctor in the hospital.

In the fields angry farmers pointed to ruined crops.

"See here," Abdul Qadir said furiously, pointing to a wilting green onion patch next to a poppy field where the shoots of the coming year's opium crop were also dying. "The onions are destroyed, the spinach is destroyed, the wheat and vegetables are destroyed," he said.

Fellow villager Zarawar Khan claimed to have seen "a huge plane flying very low" overhead spraying a snow-like substance on the fields.

"I saw the plane. They sprayed this thing on the fields," he said, putting his finger on a sticky substance which was slightly lighter than the earth around the seedlings.

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