x Abu Dhabi, UAEMonday 24 July 2017

Kabul 'on lockdown' for Karzai's inauguration

Security authorities have increased security in Kabul to stop Taliban attacks marring the inauguration of President Hamid Karzai.

Afghan and international authorities have increased security in Kabul to stop Taliban attacks marring Thursday's inauguration of President Hamid Karzai for another five years in power. The government declared Thursday a public holiday and promised maximum security, while the city's international airport, controlled by Nato's International Security Assistance Force will close, an ISAF officer told AFP.

"There will be no air movements in or out, except for night Haj flights" taking Muslim pilgrims to Mecca, he said, speaking on condition of anonymity. International troops, which in total number 100,000 US and Nato-led forces across the country, will be on standby to assist Afghan security forces in the event of an attack, he said. Security companies are recommending international clients remain indoors, at home, amid wide expectations of suicide bomb and rocket attacks.

The Afghan government declared Thursday a public holiday in Kabul and advised the capital's residents to "avoid unnecessary movements". The United Nations is also expected to order international staff to remain indoors, as major roads around Kabul will be closed to traffic. Foreign staff at some UN agencies have said they are in "lockdown" - not permitted off their premises - for three days around the ceremony.

"I'm betting on at least three or four rockets into the palace at 6.30 on Thursday morning," said one senior Western official, who also declined to be identified. He said requests to the president's office for added security for non-governmental organisations in Kabul have been ignored and as a result "NGOs are feeling a lot more vulnerable". "Karzai has done nothing to reassure international workers that he is stepping up security," he said. "We're on our own in this town now."

Mr Karzai is due to be sworn in as president for another five years at a ceremony at the heavily fortified presidential palace in the centre of the capital. Western and regional foreign ministers are expected to attend, along with hundreds of Afghan dignitaries and local and foreign correspondents. Afghanistan's National Directorate for Security announced that "all necessary security measures have been taken" for the inauguration ceremony.

"The sworn enemies of the nation will try to (disrupt) the ceremony," it said, referring to the Taliban-led insurgency and offering rewards for information leading to the "exposure of plots". The defence ministry warned of road closures across the capital on Thursday. Mr Karzai's inauguration is controversial as it follows an election in August marred by massive ballot-stuffing, mostly in Mr Karzai's favour, and the withdrawal of his main challenger, Abdullah Abdullah, from a run-off.

The Taliban considers Mr Karzai a puppet of the US and Nato, whose troops are battling to defeat the insurgency. Western diplomats and officials in Kabul, as well as security and military experts, said they expect Taliban attacks around the inauguration. Rockets are occasionally fired over Kabul from outlying villages, in what diplomats say is a Taliban intimidation tactic, but rarely cause casualties. In recent months, the militant organisation has launched devastating suicide car bomb attacks that have killed up to 100 people in the capital alone.

The Taliban waged a vicious campaign around the time of the election and attacked a UN guesthouse in Kabul, killing five UN workers on October 28. The attack traumatised the foreign population of Kabul, and saw the UN withdraw up to 600 staff, of a total of 1,300 in the country. A UN official told AFP that only "a couple of hundred" foreign employees remain in Afghanistan, and "they will be in lockdown on Thursday".

Security experts and diplomats said they expect that attacks that had been planned to derail the November 7 run-off could be deferred to the inauguration. "They've got everything in place, why waste it?" said one security company executive. Meanwhile a leading watchdog named Afghanistan as the world's second most corrupt country in a league table topped by lawless Somalia. Transparency International's annual corruption list showed Iraq, Sudan and Myanmar as the three other states in the bottom five of the chart. * AFP