World News

Karzai courts Moscow with economic projects

MOSCOW (Reuters) - Afghan President Hamid Karzai invited Russia on Friday to rebuild Soviet-era facilities in Afghanistan, courting a nation eager to expand its influence decades after the Soviet Union’s costly war there.

“We want to give a new start to vital projects that were begun very long ago,” Karzai, on his second visit to Moscow in six months, said at a news conference with President Dmitry Medvedev after their talks in the Kremlin.

The leaders issued a joint declaration in which Russia expressed its readiness to participate in “priority economic projects” in Afghanistan, some of them dating back to the Soviet era.

The projects included the Salang Tunnel in the Hindu Kush mountains as well as hydroelectric power facilities in Kabul and Baglan provinces, a customs terminal, and a university in the Afghan capital.

Neither the declaration nor the leaders mentioned the cost or potential terms. Russia has said it would rebuild Soviet-era infrastructure in Afghanistan provided the international community underwrote the cost.

The declaration expressed support for Russian involvement in a proposed gas pipeline from Turkmenistan to India via Afghanistan and Pakistan, subject to other countries’ approval.

Ex-Soviet Turkmenistan, eager to lessen reliance on long-dominant gas buyer Russia, has been cool towards Russian participation.

Russia is seeking to increase its influence in Afghanistan, where Soviet forces fought a nearly decade-long 1980s war of occupation that contributed to the Soviet Union’s collapse.

Karzai, whose country is eying the eventual withdrawal of U.S. and NATO forces after their own decade-long war against the Taliban, said he wants to step up ties with Moscow.

“Russia is a great power,” Karzai said in a speech at Russia’s Academy of Sciences. “And for us, Russia is ... a teacher.”

Moscow has ruled out sending troops to Afghanistan, where some 15,000 Soviet soldiers died fighting mujahideen insurgents before pulling out in 1989.

With the Afghan government expected to take the lead in security nationwide by the end of 2014, Medvedev said Moscow would continue to help train and equip Afghan forces and provide transit routes for NATO.

Russia will hold talks with the United States next month on longstanding plans for the sale of 21 Mi-17 helicopters for use in Afghanistan, Russian foreign ministry official Zamir Kabulov said on the sidelines of the Kremlin meetings.

Additional reporting by Nastassia Astrasheuskaya; editing by Matthew Jones