- The Washington Times - Tuesday, January 8, 2002

From combined dispatches
BAGRAM AIR BASE, Afghanistan British Prime Minister Tony Blair and nine U.S. senators swept into this former Soviet air base north of Kabul yesterday and promised Afghan leaders their full support in rebuilding the shattered country.
Mr. Blair, in an unannounced midnight visit to this base 30 miles from the capital, also praised the U.S.-led alliance for crushing the terrorist regime in Afghanistan.
The British leader said the international community turned its back on Afghanistan after the Soviets withdrew in 1989, and the country fell into the hands of the repressive Taliban regime.
The Afghan people "have suffered a very great deal in the past 20 years," Mr. Blair said. "But we do desire to be the partners of people here. The world is not going to walk away."
In an overlapping stop at the air base, Sen. Joseph I. Lieberman also said the West would not turn its back on the country.
"I think we learned at a very high and painful price the cost of a lack of involvement in Central Asia on September 11th and we're not going to let it happen again," the Connecticut Democrat and 2000 vice presidential candidate said.
Mr. Blair and the senators, whose visit also was not announce beforehand, met with interim Prime Minister Hamid Karzai, who thanked "the U.S. Congress and the U.S. people for their support in the war against terrorism in Afghanistan," Foreign Ministry spokesman Omar Samad said.
The senators, touring South and Central Asia, arrived at Bagram air base for a stopover visit expected to last less than three hours. Mr. Karzai arrived in a 10-car convoy with Afghan bodyguards and Defense Minister Mohammed Fahim, Foreign Minister Abdullah Abdullah and Women's Affairs Minister Sima Samar.
The senators and the Afghan officials discussed topics including law-and-order concerns, cooperation among Afghanistan's divisive factions, the education of women, the country's economic prospects and regional relationships.
The senators left Washington on Thursday for a trip that included scheduled stops in Afghanistan, Pakistan, Uzbekistan, Tajikistan, Oman, Turkey and possibly India. They were also expected to visit U.S. troops in the Persian Gulf.
It is the first delegation of American senators to visit Afghanistan since U.S. military operations began in October against the Taliban and Osama bin Laden's al Qaeda network, which is suspected of orchestrating the September 11 terrorist attacks.
Other members of the delegation are Sens. Chuck Hagel, Nebraska Republican; Jack Reed, Rhode Island Democrat; Susan Collins, Maine Republican; Jean Carnahan, Missouri Democrat; John Edwards, North Carolina Democrat; and Bill Nelson, Florida Democrat.
For Mr. Blair, the stop in Afghanistan came at the end of his tour of the subcontinent, which was largely overshadowed by tensions between India and Pakistan. He was the first British leader to visit Afghanistan. Security was heavy as he visited British forces at Bagram. Britain is leading the international force deployed in Afghanistan to support Mr. Karzai's interim government.
In other developments yesterday:
A six-nation group led by China and Russia took steps in Beijing to assert a leading role in the region, saying it wants Afghanistan free of foreign influence and welcomed the end of Taliban and al Qaeda control.
The U.N. human rights representative for Afghanistan said the "rule of the gun" must end because Afghans will feel truly free only after weapons are restricted, jobs created and daily routines re-established.
Pakistan said its troops arrested 23 foreign fighters trying to cross from Afghanistan into Pakistan over the weekend. At least 350 al Qaeda members, including more then 300 Arabs, have been arrested in Pakistan after crossing the border.
In Kabul, the U.N. envoy to Afghanistan, Lakhdar Brahimi, toured mine-clearing efforts at the airport and discussed minimizing civilian casualties from bombings with the new U.S. special envoy, Zalmay Khalilzad. "We've talked about the civilian victims of the bombings," Mr. Brahimi said. "It is a concern of his as much as it is of mine. We have no disagreement on this."

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