Last Weapons Collected from Taliban Stronghold

In a landmark for the U.N.-backed campaign to disarm Afghanistan's warlords, the last heavy weapons have been collected from the former stronghold of the anti-Taliban resistance in the Panjshir Valley (search), officials said Sunday.

The countrywide disarmament drive, which also aims to get 60,000 militiamen to turn in their weapons to make way for the new U.S.-trained national army, is on track for completion by June, said Rick Grant, spokesman for the U.N.-run Afghanistan's New Beginnings Program (search).

The last half dozen of the 115 heavy weapons — including tanks, armored personnel carriers and rockets — found in the Panjshir since January were collected Friday by U.N. staff, deactivated and put in a secure compound in the region guarded by the Afghan National Army (search), he said.

While a few hundred more heavy weapons have still to be collected in other regions of Afghanistan, mostly in the northern province of Kunduz and western province of Herat, Grant said the completion of the process in the Panjshir was symbolically important.

"The Panjshir was seen as the center of the resistance to the Soviet occupation and the Taliban and the most heavily armed region in the country. Now it's cleared it sends a message to the rest of the country of the progress that's being made," he said.

The valley was the mountain stronghold of famed resistance commander Ahmad Shah Massood, whose ethnic Tajik supporters were at the core of the Northern Alliance which helped the United States drive out the Taliban more than three years ago. But some alliance leaders were accused of dragging their feet over disarmament.

Collection of heavy weapons in the Panjshir also was briefly suspended in January after two cranes used in the disarmament were set on fire.

Grant said that local leaders had since supported the disarmament drive and there were no further violent incidents.

More than 8,630 functioning or repairable heavy weapons have now been collected nationwide, out of an estimated total of around 9,000 left over a quarter century of conflict. Some of the hardware will be put into use by the national army which is hoped to consolidate the control and reach of Karzai's government.

The disarmament of militiamen has also gathered pace in recent months after a slow start. Officials say that more than 42,000 have handed over weapons and so far about three-quarters of them have joined training programs to prepare them for civilian life.

The disarmament campaign is slated to cost US$160 million (euro122 million), principally funded by Japan.