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Afghanistan opens new trade route with aim of building link to Europe

HERAT, Afghanistan (Reuters) - Afghanistan on Thursday opened a new international trade route aimed at establishing direct access to Central Asian and Europe as it seeks to build up an economy wrecked by decades of war and reduce reliance on Pakistan.

President Ashraf Ghani inaugurated the route, known as the Lapis Lazuli corridor, at a ceremony in the western province of Herat.

“For over 17 years Afghanistan was in isolation, today Afghanistan is connected with its neighbours and beyond,” Ghani said at the ceremony, which saw the first trucks set off with dried fruit, herbs and textiles bound for Turkmenistan, Azerbaijan, Georgia, and Turkey.

The corridor is the latest in a series of energy and transport projects aimed at opening Afghanistan up as a hub at the heart of Central Asia.

Ghani, a former World Bank official, has pushed such projects, including the $10 billion TAPI - Turkmenistan, Afghanistan, Pakistan, and India - natural gas network launched this year, as essential to building a functioning Afghan economy.

The new corridor - which includes stretches or road, rail and maritime routes - runs from Afghanistan to Turkmenistan, Azerbaijan and Georgia before crossing the Black Sea to Turkey and eventually Europe.

Ghani is trying to reduce land-locked Afghanistan’s dependence on its eastern neighbour, Pakistan, with which it has long had complicated relations.

Afghanistan accuses Pakistan of providing safe haven and support to Taliban insurgents, a charge rejected by Pakistan. Major crossings on their border are regularly closed for political and security reasons.

“Afghanistan has to reduce its dependency on Pakistan for international trade, the country has to establish new trade routes to improve the domestic economy,” said Abdul Nasheed, a senior member of the independent Afghanistan Chamber of Commerce.

Last month, Afghanistan inaugurated an air cargo service to China by sending 20 tons of pine nuts. It has a similar cargo link with India.

Reporting by Storay Karimi; Writing by Rupam Jain; Editing by Robert Birsel