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Ambitious Afghan pipeline deal finally signed
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Associated Press

Ashgabat, Turkmenistan — Pakistan and Turkmenistan signed an ambitious agreement with the Afghan president Friday to build a gas pipeline through war-ravaged Afghanistan.

The 1,460-kilometre 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-Qaeda network and remnants of the ousted Taliban regime.

Mr. 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 (U.S.) 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 20-billion cubic metres 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-Qaeda.

The Japanese conglomerate Itochu has expressed interest in participating in the pipeline, but so far no company has stepped forward to take over the project.

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