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Ulster-born MP in stark warning on rise in drug trafficking

By Claire McNeilly

The Ulster-born MP who chairs the All Party Parliamentary Group on Afghanistan said today that the country's huge drug trafficking problem will never be solved until a proper democratic government is introduced.

Roberta Blackman-Wood said she was not surprised by revelations in a United Nations report suggesting that opium production hit a record $$3bn this year, accounting for 90% of the world's illegal output.

The Labour MP for Durham, who visited Afghanistan in April this year, backed up the report's findings, which stress that production is concentrated in the south of the strife-torn country.

"A group of us went at the end of April with the Ministry of Defence and met politicians in Kabul," said Mrs Blackman-Woods.

"We also went to army camps in North. It was after the poppy harvest, so we knew it was really bad.

"You could see where the poppy harvest had been. It really is quite extensive, but only in a handful of the 34 provinces. It's not massive in all of them and I think we have to bear that in mind."

Afghanistan has become almost the exclusive supplier of opium, the world's deadliest drug, according to the United Nations.

The southern province of Helmand has, meanwhile, become the world's biggest source of illicit drugs, the UN Office on Drugs and Crime said in its 2007 Annual Opium Survey.

This was despite a multi-million dollar effort led by Britain and the USA to cut the opium trade, which finances the growing Taliban insurgency that has killed thousands of people, including Western solders.

Mrs Blackman-Woods, a University of Ulster graduate, said that although the harvest could be destroyed easily, it would not root out the problem.

"It would be easy to use aerial spray to ruin the crops, but that wouldn't win the hearts and minds of the people," she said.

"It's not their in interest and we need to give them an alternative interest that works."

The Labour politician added that it was impossible for ordinary Afghans to resist the cultivation of narcotics for various reasons, including monetary gain.

"These are really deeply unpleasant organised criminals, supported by a lot of weaponry and the Taliban," she said.

"They will not be able to resist this. They also know they will get paid more for illegal production."

Explaining that the role of her committee was to gather and disseminate information and keep the "issue of Afghanistan" at the forefront of the agenda in Parliament, the Belfast woman admitted a personal interest.

"I've been interested in Afghanistan for about 20 years," she admitted.

"I was an academic before I became an MP and I was involved in a woman's group when the mujahidin first started to fight Russian occupation."

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