Mon, Feb 28, 2005 - Page 5 News List

Source of chemical cropdusters probed in Afghanistan

DESTRUCTION OF CROPS Afghanis who heard night planes flying overhead found they had been `dusted' with a chemical poison that destroys their livelihood

NY TIMES NEWS SERVICE , KANAI

Abdullah, a black-turbaned shepherd, said he was watching over his sheep one night in early February when he heard a plane pass low overhead three times. By morning his eyes were so swollen he could not open them and the sheep around him were dying in convulsions.

Although farmers had noticed a white powder on their crops, they cut grass and clover for their animals and picked spinach to eat anyway. Within hours the animals were severely ill, people here said, and the villagers complained of fevers, skin rashes and bloody diarrhea. The children were particularly affected. A week later, the crops -- wheat, vegetables and poppies -- were dying, and a dozen dead animals, including newborn lambs, lay tossed in a heap.

The incident on Feb. 3 has left the herders of sheep and goats in this remote mountain area in Helmand Province deeply angered and suspicious. They are convinced that someone is surreptitiously spraying their lands or dusting them with chemicals, presumably in a clandestine effort to eradicate Afghanistan's bumper poppy crop, the world's leading source of opium.

The incident in Kanai was not the first time that Afghan villagers -- or Afghan government officials -- had complained of what they suspected was nighttime spraying. In November, villagers in Nimla, in Nangarhar Province, said their fields, too, had been laced with chemicals when a plane passed overhead several times during the night.

Afterward, Afghan and foreign officials who investigated returned with samples of tiny gray granules that they said provided evidence that spraying had occurred. Two Western embassies sent samples abroad for analysis but have not yet received the results.

At that time, President Hamid Karzai publicly condemned the spraying. Though it was never clear who was responsible, members of his staff said they suspected the US or Britain, which together have been leading the struggle to rein in Afghan poppy cultivation, which has reached record levels. Both countries finance outside security firms to train Afghan counternarcotics forces.

Karzai said his government was not spraying fields and had no knowledge of such activity, and he called in the US and British ambassadors for an explanation. Then, as now, the US and British Embassies denied any involvement.

"There is no credible evidence that aerial spraying has taken place in Helmand," the US Embassy said in a statement this time. "No agency, personnel or contractors associated with the United States government have conducted or been involved in any such activity in Helmand or any other province of Afghanistan."

An Afghan government delegation sent to investigate the latest incident said it found no evidence of aerial spraying. Rather, "a naturally occurring disease" had killed the crops and animals, Lt. Gen. Muhammad Daoud, deputy interior minister for counternarcotics, said in a statement.

Agriculture Ministry officials said the extremely cold weather could have affected the crops. They added, however, that the ministry lacked the technical capacity to analyze samples for chemicals.

But the people in Kanai, neighboring Tanai and at least two other villages are incredulous. For them, there is no doubt that someone sprayed their lands and, despite official denials, they blame the United States, which still controls the skies in Afghanistan.

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