Tue, Jun 24, 2008 - Page 4 News List

Rice warns Karzai over threat

HARVEST US Marines were trading gunfire with Taliban militants in the volatile southern Afghan province of Helmand, the world's largest poppy growing region


US Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice said in an interview aired on Sunday that threats by Afghanistan to pursue Taliban insurgents across the border into Pakistan were “not wise.”

Rice instead called for cooperation between the two nations after Afghan President Hamid Karzai had angered Pakistan when he threatened cross-border action as a right of “self-defense” against Taliban forces.

“I think it’s probably not wise to talk about Afghan cross-border operations,” Rice said in the interview with CNN.

“I think it’s better that Pakistan and Afghanistan cooperate on their respective sides of the border,” she said.

“There are Taliban operating in Afghanistan who have to be defeated. And there are Taliban who are operating in Pakistan, and they have to be defeated, too. But I think it’s probably better that the respective governments deal with their own problems,” she said.

Karzai sent relations between the two allies in the US-led “war on terror” plummeting to a new low a week ago when he said that his war-torn country would be justified in striking Taliban rebels based on Pakistani soil.

Pakistani Foreign Minister Shah Mehmood Qureshi condemned Karzai’s “irresponsible, threatening” comments and said Pakistan would “defend its territorial sovereignty.”

The volatile situation on the porous 2,500km border was highlighted last week when Pakistan accused “cowardly” US-led coalition forces of killing 11 Pakistani soldiers in an airstrike.

Meanwhile, US Marines were trading gunfire and artillery shells with Taliban militants in the volatile southern Afghan province of Helmand, the world’s largest poppy growing region.

The 24th Marine Expeditionary Unit moved into the town of Garmser in late April. It’s the farthest south US forces have been in Afghanistan in years.

Marine commanders say the Taliban brought in arms and fighters in response, to protect the lucrative poppy fields that cover Garmser.

The Taliban derives tens of millions of dollars from the poppy trade each year by taxing farmers and charging safe passage fees.

The Marines originally planned to be in Garmser for only a couple of days, to open a road that leads to southern Helmand, near the border with Pakistan. But the 24th MEU decided to extend its stay to root out the fighters.

After weeks of skirmishes with insurgents — who fired rockets and mortars at US positions several times daily — NATO officials say the militants fled the region late last month. A shura — a council of village elders — was held in Garmser for the first time in years.

“Many of the people who have approached our patrols have told us how happy they are that the insurgents have left. They seem genuinely glad to be home,” said Lieutenant Colonel Anthony Henderson, the commanding officer of the MEU’s infantry battalion.

Helmand Province is the world’s largest opium poppy growing region, the main ingredient in heroin.

The Marines arrived during the poppy harvest season, but didn’t cut down the flowery plants. That would have alienated farmers and labors with no other means of feeding their families, the Marines said.

“Poppy fields in Afghanistan are [like] the cornfields of Ohio,” said Staff Sergeant Jeremy Stover, 28, of Marion, Ohio. “When we got here they were asking us if it’s OK to harvest poppy and we said, ‘Yeah, just don’t use an AK-47.’”

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