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Dec. 27, 2002, 10:29PM

3 nations sign agreement for Afghanistan pipeline

Staff and News Reports

ASHGABAT, Turkmenistan -- Pakistan and Turkmenistan signed an ambitious agreement with the president of Afghanistan on Friday to build a gas pipeline through the war-ravaged country.

The 910-mile Trans-Afghanistan Pipeline would carry natural gas from the Central Asian nation of Turkmenistan to energy-hungry Pakistan. It would be one of the largest direct foreign investment projects in Afghanistan in decades.

"It is a project mainly for the next generations of our countries and important for the energy consumption of the three countries and the whole region," Afghan President Hamid Karzai said after signing the deal with Turkmen President Saparmurat Niyazov and Pakistani Prime Minister Zafarullah Khan Jamali.

The project has yet to secure financial backing from investors leery of making such a massive investment in a country where U.S.-led forces are still hunting Osama bin Laden's al Qaida network and remnants of the ousted Taliban regime.

Karzai defended his country's prospects, though, saying the security situation in Afghanistan "can be considered one of the best in the region" and his government would do whatever is necessary to see that the pipeline is completed.

Officials estimate that the pipeline would pump $300 million in annual transit fees into Afghanistan's ruined economy and create 12,000 jobs.

The project would also secure an additional source of energy for Pakistan and provide an additional export outlet for Turkmenistan, which has the fifth-largest natural gas reserves in the world.

The pipeline, which would carry up to 700 billion cubic feet of gas a year, could also be extended to India, officials said.

The project was proposed in 1997 by a consortium led by Unocal Corp. But the company abandoned it after the United States fired cruise missiles into Afghanistan the following year in a strike against al-Qaida.

Unocal has absolutely no interest in getting back into that pipeline project, said spokesman Robert Wright from corporate headquarters in El Segundo, Calif.

It formally withdrew in December of 1998 and now has other projects. It is hard to imagine the Trans-Afghanistan Pipeline getting financing, Wright added.

The Japanese conglomerate Itochu has expressed interest in participating in the pipeline.

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