April 4, 2011 / 2:03 PM / 9 years ago

Afghan Taliban relent over Helmand phone ban

HELMAND, Afghanistan (Reuters) - Afghanistan’s Taliban have relaxed an order to mobile phone companies to shut down networks in the southern province of Helmand, but only to help their fighters communicate better, a spokesman for the insurgent group said in Monday.

Across Afghanistan, insurgents have destroyed mobile phone network towers of companies that refuse to shut them down when ordered, arguing foreign forces use the signals to monitor militants.

Telephone operators were ordered to cut all signals in Helmand about two weeks ago, and complied immediately, a reminder of militant power in a highly contested area where the provincial capital is slated for a security handover this year.

Phone masts will now be on from 9 a.m. (0430 GMT) until 3 p.m. (1030 GMT), said Mohammad Naeem, an employee of mobile firm AWCC.

He declined to comment further but the shutdown was deeply resented by civilians in Helmand, most of whom rely on mobile phones.

The networks are vital to communication in a country where most infrastructure has been destroyed or damaged in more than 30 years of conflict, and where there are no land lines in many areas.

But the Taliban said the change in policy was made for strategic military reasons, not to win favor with civilians.

There were repeated requests from fighters in the field for mobile signals, so they could better coordinate attacks on foreign troops and government forces, said Qari Yousuf Ahmadi, a spokesman for the Islamist group.

“Only the Mujahideen have the power to close down or reopen the telephone signals not the government or anybody else,” Ahmadi told Reuters via telephone from undisclosed location, referring to Muslim holy warriors.

Ahmadi earlier said the group’s leadership decided to bring in the ban to prevent night raids by foreign troops who use telephones to track Taliban fighters.

Last month, President Hamid Karzai announced security responsibilities for seven areas would be handed to Afghan security forces this year, including Lashkar Gah, the provincial capital of Helmand.

The process is due to end with the withdrawal of all foreign combat troops by 2014, as agreed by U.S. and NATO leaders last year.

Writing by Hamid Shalizi; Editing by Emma Graham-Harrison and Robert Birsel

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