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Karzai sworn in Afghan premier

Kabul, December 22
Soft-spoken aristocrat Hamid Karzai was today sworn in as leader of Afghanistan in the first peaceful handover of power in 28 years before tribal elders, UN delegates, diplomats and a top US General gathered to witness an end to war.

“I would like to promise you that I will fulfil my mission to bring peace to Afghanistan, that we cannot see again the chains of fighting and shooting in our country,” Mr Karzai said in a speech in both Pashto and Dari — the two main languages of Afghanistan — minutes before he was sworn in.

In the hall in the Interior Ministry in the heart of Kabul, 2,000 tribal leaders, incoming Cabinet members and diplomats gathered for the ceremony to inaugurate Mr Karzai as head of a government tasked to bring peace to a land riven by war for decades.

“This is indeed a momentous day for Afghanistan, but the challenges ahead are also momentous and everyone present today will have a share in facing up to those challenges,” United Nations special representative Lakhdar Brahimi said.

The ceremony to swear in the 30-member interim administration that took over from outgoing President Burhanuddin Rabbani, a Professor of Islamic Shariah law, and which will stay in power for six months began with a prayer by an Islamic cleric.

The national anthem played as curtains parted at the back of the stage to reveal a huge portrait of Ahmad Shah Masood, legendary leader of the Northern Alliance that defeated the Taliban and assassinated in a suicide bombing two days before the September 11 attacks on the USA.

Shouts of “God is Great” echoed through the hall when speakers referred to the late hero of northern Afghanistan.

Mr Brahimi, who brokered the talks in Bonn this month at which Afghan groups agreed on the administration, spoke first and reminded his audience that “each and every” Afghan had been touched by tragedy in decades of civil war and foreign invasion.

He reminded the incoming administration of “the people of Afghanistan whose prayers can almost be heard echoing through the valleys and mountains of this ancient land”.

To ensure that peace returns, armed British troops patrolled the Afghan capital for the first time to boost security.

“It’s a great day,” said Mr James Dobbins, US special envoy to Afghanistan.

He arrived with General Tommy Franks, the man in command of the US war in Afghanistan that wrested power from the Taliban after six years of fundamentalist rule when men were banned from trimming their beards and women could only walk the streets veiled in the all-enveloping burqa.

“I will safeguard the achievements of Jehad (holy war),” Mr Karzai said in his oath of office, administered by the acting Chief Justice.

“I will try my best to rise above the ethnic, religious and linguistic prejudices to serve my country and work for national unity,” Mr Karzai said, speaking in Dari.

To applause, he pledged to respect the role of women.

Among the women at the ceremony, none was wearing a burqa. They were wearing silk scarves over their hair, and many were wearing makeup — just weeks after the disappearance of the fundamentalist Taliban who banned them from appearing in public.

A red carpet was laid out on the tarmac of the compound and an honour guard and a small military brass band were lined up beside it, giving a drum roll as Mr Rabbani arrived.

“In my view the problems and hardships of our people are coming to an end. We are now tied with modern civilisation. We are now together with the international community,” Mr Rabbani said.

“This is a historic moment which has no precedent in almost a century,” Mr Rabbani said.

Security was tight in a capital that has been ravaged by war since the Soviet invasion on Christmas Day 1979.

Soldiers of the Northern Alliance that swept into Kabul on November 13 in the wake of retreating Taliban, arrested three suspected armed fighters of the fundamentalist militia in the Interior Ministry compound.

Northern Alliance police wearing newly painted white helmets sprayed with the word “Police” in English and Dari had sealed off the streets for several blocks around the ministry by 9.30 a.m. (10.30 a.m. IST).

Many carried Kalashnikov rifles. Inside the Interior Ministry compound, several hundred armed Alliance troops were deployed, including some on rooftops. Every visitor was searched.

Former foes and longtime friends sat in the audience.

The Northern Alliance was the main military force on the ground in the US-led defeat of the Taliban, and will be providing 18 of the 30 ministers in the interim administration of Mr Karzai, who becomes interim chairman.

In the streets outside, British Royal Marines took up positions — answering a popular call for outside security to ensure the leaders do not return to the bloody civil strife that killed 50,000 persons in Kabul in the early 1990s.

The UN-mandated presence of 20 at the Interior Ministry was their first involvement with security, and comes despite reservations among the Northern Alliance and many tribal leaders who are nervous of the presence of foreign troops on their soil.

The celebrations may have been spoiled by the failure so far to track down Osama bin Laden, the primary focus of the whole campaign, but General Franks was undaunted.

“Oh eventually, of course, we will catch him,” he said.

ISLAMABAD: Pakistani President Pervez Musharraf on Saturday sent a message of “warm felicitations” to Mr Karzai, head of an interim Afghanistan government that was inaugurated in Kabul.

“Pakistan looks forward to working with the Afghan administration for the strengthening of cooperation between the two countries that are neighbours, friends and brothers,” a Pakistan Foreign Office statement said.

A five-member Pakistani delegation, led by Foreign Minister Abdul Sattar attended the swearing in ceremony in Kabul.

A one time supporter of Afghanistan’s dismantled Taliban regime, Pakistan is apparently sidelined by Afghanistan’s new administration, dominated by the Northern Alliance faction, which is close to Iran. Reuters, DPABack

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