Gas prices up in Kabul; fuel convoys reduced to trickle

Posted: Wednesday, November 07, 2001

KABUL, Afghanistan -- Fuel supplies have dwindled to a trickle and prices have skyrocketed in the Afghan capital after U.S. jets targeted storage dumps and fuel convoys from Iran, fuel dealers and transport workers said Tuesday.

''No business, no money, no diesel,'' taxi driver Fazl Khan said. ''What can we do? Look. Everyone is stopped.''

Before the U.S.-led bombing campaign began Oct. 7, an average of 30 fuel tankers a day would arrive in this beleaguered city, bringing much-needed supplies to keep the Taliban capital running. But since a fuel convoy was targeted about two weeks ago, only five tankers arrive daily, according to driver Saeed Rahim.

Fuel convoys and depots have become major targets for U.S. jets since President Bush launched the air assault to force the ruling Taliban to hand over Osama bin Laden, chief suspect in the Sept. 11 terrorist attacks.

The Americans want to prevent fuel, the vast majority of which comes from Iran, from reaching Taliban military units fighting the opposition northern alliance.

For the last two years, Iran has been the primary source of fuel even though Tehran and the Taliban do not have diplomatic relations. Trade began after the two agreed to open the border at Islam Qila, 30 miles west of the Taliban-controlled city of Herat.

Fuel is a joint operation between Afghan and Iranian businessmen. Iranians bring the fuel to the border with western Afghanistan, where Afghan drivers pick it up. It takes them six days of hard driving over bone-jarring roads to reach Kabul.

Virtually all the imports are diesel. Most cars, trucks and buses in Afghanistan are diesel-powered because gasoline is too expensive.

Drivers and others say the fuel business nose-dived after U.S. jets attacked two fuel trucks traveling between the western city of Herat and the southern Taliban stronghold of Kandahar.

Word of the late October attack spread quickly through the network of Afghans who make the run between Iran and Afghanistan's cities.

''Two fuel trucks were targeted by planes and now the businessmen have almost stopped bringing fuel into the city,'' said Mohammed Saddar, who sells fuel at a small shop in the heart of Kabul. ''Other smugglers are bringing it in, but it is expensive.''

It is impossible to determine whether the attacks have cut into Taliban military supplies or how much fuel is being diverted from the civilian market to military and government use.

In Kabul, tanker trucks are spread throughout the city, apparently to disperse the supplies away from depots that are on the list of bombing targets.

However, shortages are already beginning to affect civilian commerce in a city where after more than 20 years of armed conflict and political upheaval, suffering and shortages have become a way of life.

At Saddar's diesel shop, a structure of gnarled wood with rusted mufflers piled to the roof, the bushy-bearded, 45-year-old businessman sells his diesel for the equivalent of $6.73 a gallon. Before the bombing, the price was $3.85 a gallon.

The high cost means few people are buying diesel. With foreign aid workers, U.N. officials and relatively well-off Afghans having largely deserted the city, there's not much business left for taxi drivers and other regular customers, Saddar said.

The yellow taxi cabs that usually careen the war-ruined streets of Kabul, weaving past hordes of bicycles and pushcarts and swerving to avoid speeding pickups packed with Taliban soldiers, now sit idle.

At Macroyan, an old Soviet-era housing complex, about 10 yellow taxicabs are parked. The owners huddle around a smoking kettle set up by an elderly entrepreneur on a street corner to sell tea to the idle taxi drivers. They sip their sweet black tea and bemoan their fate.

Rickety old buses are also gathering dust. They are decorated with giant cutouts of luxury ocean liners and the word ''Titanic'' or with English phrases like ''Goodbye,'' ''Thank you,'' and ''God Bless You.''

One bus is decorated with a phrase for all eventualities -- ''Hello, Good Day, Please, Goodbye.''

Before the bombing, long-distance buses, with bright red tassels hanging low on the front windows, would ply the 120-mile route from Kabul to the Pakistani border.

They too are mostly idle. Pakistan has sealed its border with Afghanistan, and few can afford the fare, which has doubled to $5 because of diesel prices.

''The road is closed to Pakistan,'' said Amin Gul, who has no customers at his diesel shop opposite the Kabul River. ''And anyway, no one wants to come with diesel because they are afraid.''

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