Asia Crisis

Expelled EU, U.N. officials leave Afghanistan

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KABUL, Dec 27 (Reuters) - A senior United Nations official and another from the European Union left Afghanistan on Thursday after the government ordered their expulsion, accusing both of holding talks with the Taliban and for paying cash to the group.

The expulsions have caused a diplomatic row between the government and key aid agencies who fear the loss of two such experienced Afghan hands could hinder reconstruction and development efforts.

United Nations spokesman Aleem Siddique said the U.N. staffer had left on Thursday morning on a regular chartered flight to neighbouring Pakistan. Diplomats in Kabul confirmed the EU official, the mission's acting head, had been on the same flight.

While neither organisation has formerly named the pair, it is common knowledge in the capital that they are Michael Semple and Mervin Patterson, who have lived and worked in Afghanistan for more than a decade -- even during the rule of the Taliban that was toppled by the U.S.-led invasion in 2001.

Semple is British and Patterson Irish.

The Afghan government declared the pair personas non grata after accusing them of meeting Taliban officials last week in troubled southern Helmand province, a bastion for the insurgency and the main drug producing region of Afghanistan.

EU and U.N. officials insist the pair were meeting only local elders and the whole affair was a "misunderstanding".

"As part of our efforts in Helmand province we need to be speaking to people on the ground," Siddique said.

"We are dealing with a very complex situation here in Afghanistan. Tribal communities and tribal relationships are a very complex web."

Afghan officials stood by the expulsions on Thursday.

"We are acting on the basis of our national interest. The two sides (EU and the U.N.) have agreed that they should go," one official told Reuters.

Aid organisations and analysts say the biggest threat to humanitarian work in the country has been the growing Taliban insurgency, fuelled by the region's vast drug trade, and that the only way to stop it is with the cooperation of tribal elders and leaders.

Frequently this involves offering lucrative supply and development opportunities to local leaders in exchange for cooperation on projects. Often the lines are blurred between who is a Taliban member, Taliban sympathiser or those merely hostile to the central government and foreigners.

The disputed meeting took place in Helmand's Musa Qala district, controversially abandoned earlier this year by British troops after a deal was struck with local elders to police themselves.

That agreement was criticised by the government after Taliban insurgents swiftly took control of the area until driven out two weeks ago when NATO and Afghan forces retook it.

Helmand is the heart of Afghanistan's drug-producing poppy industry and the EU and U.N. have a key role in the British-led eradication programme.

Afghanistan's poppies produce over 90 percent of the world's heroin and the multi-million-dollar illegal industry it supports is said by analysts to be a primary reason for the Taliban's resurgence in the south and east.

The Afghan government, which has little support in the Taliban heartlands, insists publicly it will not negotiate with the insurgents but frequent contacts are known to take place between unofficial emissaries.

Western governments also hold the line that the Taliban must not be negotiated with, but privately argue that dividing the insurgents and splitting the leadership is a legitimate strategy. (Additional reporting by Sayed Salahuddin; Editing by Jerry Norton)