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Diplomatic row as Afghans expel European pair

KABUL (Reuters) - A diplomatic row erupted on Wednesday between Afghanistan and key aid partners after Kabul declared “persona non grata” a Briton and an Irishman working for the EU and United Nations, accusing them of threatening state security by meeting Taliban insurgents.

With Afghan President Hamid Karzai away in neighbouring Pakistan, a government official said acting European Union mission head Michael Semple and senior U.N. official Marvin Patterson had been expelled and must leave by Thursday.

“It is the government’s last decision. They are persona non grata,” the official told Reuters on condition of anonymity.

Western diplomats in Kabul closed ranks and insisted the dispute was merely a “misunderstanding,” adding they hoped the pair would only have to leave for a short period.

Semple told Reuters it would “not be appropriate” for him to comment on the matter at this time.

The government accused the pair, both old Afghan hands and experts in local languages and customs, of meeting Taliban members in the southern province of Helmand, heartland of Afghanistan’s drug-producing poppy industry and an insurgency stronghold.

“Not only did they hold talks with the Taliban, but also had given them money,” the Afghan official said. “It is not clear whether they were supporting the insurgency or not.”

He said it was also unknown if the meeting was a personal initiative or if the men were acting in an official capacity, but 50 Afghans -- some of them colleagues of the pair -- have been detained and investigated over their links to the matter.


A British soldier from the NATO International Security Assistance Force (ISAF) patrols in Kabul December 24, 2007. REUTERS/Omar Sobhani

In New York, the United Nations denied the two officials had been talking to the Taliban. “We have been talking to the local authorities and community representatives, we are not talking to the Taliban,” said spokeswoman Marie Okabe.

She said there was no basis for the expulsion, adding: “Discussions are currently ongoing with the Afghan authorities to rectify this situation. ... We hope that this matter will be resolved swiftly to enable our staff member to return.”

Semple and Patterson have lived and worked in Afghanistan for more than a decade, even during the rule of the Taliban, which was toppled by the U.S.-led invasion in 2001.

Both are considered highly experienced, hands-on experts on Afghanistan, valuable skills in a country in which scores of international and nongovernmental aid organizations are attempting to run reconstruction and development projects.

Aid organizations and analysts say the biggest threat to humanitarian work in the country has been the growing Taliban insurgency. That is particularly so in the south and east, where remnants of Osama bin Laden’s al-Qaeda network are stoking it.

The Afghan official said the 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 criticized 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 United Nations have a key role in the British-led eradication program.

Afghanistan’s poppies produce over 90 percent of the world’s heroin and the multimillion-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 David Fox and Patrick Worsnip; Editing by Peter Cooney