* Dealers boast how easy it is to smuggle fertilizer
* Fertilizer used as main component in homemade bombs
* "God has provided an alternative for everything"
By Asim Tanveer
MULTAN, Pakistan, Dec 13 Whenever a
homemade bomb kills a U.S. soldier in Afghanistan, the chances
are its main ingredient came from a factory in Pakistan, a trend
that has emerged as the latest source of friction in already
frayed U.S.-Pakistan relations.
A U.S. Congressional panel has frozen $700 million in aid to
Pakistan until it gives assurances it is helping fight the
spread of bombs in the region by regulating the distribution of
calcium ammonium nitrate fertilizer from the Pakarab company.
U.S. officials have visited the complex in the dusty city of
Multan over the last two years to seek the management's help in
preventing militants from smuggling fertilizer that can be used
to make bombs for use over the border in Afghanistan.
Company officials say they have cooperated.
Bags containing ammonium nitrate, which is used in many of
the homemade bombs known as improvised explosive devices (IEDs)
that are so effective against U.S. troops in Afghanistan, now
have different colouring.
The company is also trying to dye the fertilizer differently
to help authorities track it.
"It is wrong to single Pakistan and us out, especially as we
are doing all that they want us to do," Pakarab Fertilizers
chief executive officer Fawad Mukhtar told Reuters.
"We have told them that this is made throughout the region
and Pakistan is not the only source. We have also told them that
huge quantities of this fertilizer are made in Iran, Uzbekistan
and across Central Asia."
But the U.S. Congress is not in a very flexible mood and
Pakarab is likely to remain in focus.
U.S. officials say the vast majority of material used to
make IEDs in Afghanistan comes from Pakarab's factories,
especially the one in Multan, a city in Punjab province
surrounded by cotton fields.
Calls are growing in the United States to penalise Islamabad
for failing to act against militant groups and, at worst,
helping them, after the secret U.S. raid on a Pakistan garrison
town in which al Qaeda leader Osama bin Laden was killed in May.
The freeze on U.S. aid was agreed as part of a defence bill
that is expected to be passed this week. However, securing
tighter Pakistani regulation of ammonium nitrate, which is
banned in Afghanistan, will be difficult.
The fertilizer is churned out at the huge, grey Pakarab
complex with chimneys smoking 24 hours a day. About 600,000
tonnes is produced annually.
Yet company officials, fertilizer dealers and workers say
the problem lies outside the heavily guarded, barbed-wired and
cement walls around the complex.
"WE JUST GET AN ORDER AND WE FILL IT"
Porous borders and rampant corruption make it easy to
smuggle fertilizer into Afghanistan.
Standing just outside the factory at a loading station with
dozens of trucks, a fertilizer dealer boasts about how easy it
is to smuggle with impunity in Pakistan, a poor country heavily
dependent on U.S. aid.
Customs officials and police are often accused of
supplementing low wages by taking bribes from smugglers who move
their goods across the frontier by pickup trucks, motorcycles,
bicycles and donkey carts.
"You can call it smuggling or anything else," said Sarwar
Baloch, wearing traditional baggy trousers and shirt.
"We don't ask questions, we don't know what it's used for.
We just get an order and we supply it."
Dealers who buy in bulk from the factory sat in shops beside
desks stacked with orders and receipts.
They say it's impossible for them to tell whether their
customers are legitimate farmers or militants intent on blowing
up U.S. and other forces in Afghanistan.
"I read in the news today that $700 million of aid has been
stopped. If this is so damaging for Pakistan they should shut
down the factory or make it produce urea fertilizer instead,"
said dealer Afroz Abbas, 48, sitting beside sacks of fertilizer.
"God has provided an alternative for everything."
So far, Pakistan has only produced draft legislation to
tackle the problem. Even if it passes, many doubt the spread of
IEDs can be prevented.
"We received a notification a year-and-a-half ago to monitor
this fertilizer because religious extremists were reportedly
purchasing it in large amounts," said a senior police official
in Multan, who asked not to be named.
"There is no way we can stop fertilizer smuggling. We don't
have the capacity to track every bag."
(Additional reporting by Faisal Aziz in KARACHI and Qasim
Nauman in ISLAMABAD; Writing by Michael Georgy; Editing by Paul