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Tuesday, 8 January, 2002, 00:49 GMT
Blair pledges support for Afghan people
Afghan interim leader Hamid Karzai (left) and British Prime Minister Tony Blair
Blair met Afghan interim leader Hamid Karzai
UK Prime Minister Tony Blair has become the first world leader to visit Afghanistan since the fall of the Taleban.

He was also the first to meet the new interim leader, Hamid Karzai, on his home soil, during a visit to Bagram air base north of Kabul.

Our commitment to Afghanistan is for the long term

Tony Blair

In the three-hour visit, unannounced for security reasons, Mr Blair promised not to abandon Afghanistan and said its new government should be given a chance.

He acknowledged that much was still to be done to rebuild the country, but said its future was now in the hands of its people, "as it should be".

"Afghanistan has been a failed state for too long and the whole world has paid the price - in the export of terror, the export of drugs and finally the explosion in death and destruction on the streets of the US," he said.

"We are always on the side of the Afghan people and we remain on the side of the Afghan people today," he added.

He also paid tribute to British forces on the ground, who he said were doing a "fantastic job".

"We have some of the finest forces in the world and both in the offensive operation against the Taleban and al-Qaeda, and now in the ISAF [International Security Assistance Force], they have committed themselves brilliantly."

Security concerns

Mr Blair later told reporters that the objectives of capturing Mohammed Omar and Osama bin Laden "have to be achieved".

Mr Blair and his wife, Cherie, arrived in an RAF Hercules carrier at about 2255 local time, and were met by Mr Karzai and his wife.

The British leader held talks with Mr Karzai before visiting Major General John McColl, commanding officer of the International Security Assistance Force (ISAF), and British forces on the ground.

But security concerns meant that Mr Blair was unable to visit the capital Kabul.

Personal triumph

Mr Blair's visit came as the final leg of a tour of Asia, which also included Bangladesh, India and Pakistan.
Tony Blair with wife Cherie in Pakistan
In Pakistan Blair urged the world to help Afghanistan rebuild

The BBC's Nick Robinson said it was a moment of personal triumph for Mr Blair, who believes those who doubted the conflict in Afghanistan could be successful have been proved wrong.

But BBC political editor Andrew Marr said Mr Blair was facing "a ferocious barrage of criticism" at home, for spending too much time on the world stage and ignoring domestic problems such as trouble with the railways.

US delegation

Earlier on Monday, Mr Karzai was host to a delegation of leading US senators - the first American lawmakers to visit Afghanistan since the start of the US military operations against the Taleban on 7 October.

The group, which included former Republican presidential hopeful John McCain of Arizona and former Democratic vice presidential candidate Joseph Lieberman of Connecticut, are on a tour of Central Asia.

Senator Lieberman said after his meeting with Mr Karzai that the US owed Afghanistan an apology for not paying it enough attention over the last decade.

"We paid a very painful price for our lack of involvement in Central Asia on 11 September," the senator told reporters.

The BBC's Richard Miron
"Hamid Karzai welcomed Mr Blair's support"
The BBC's Ishbel Matheson in Kabul
"Security was absolutely paramount and... that was the reason behind the visit being so short"
See also:

07 Jan 02 | South Asia
Blair urges support for Afghanistan
07 Jan 02 | South Asia
Blair urges Kashmir dialogue
06 Jan 02 | South Asia
US 'resumes Afghan bombing'
06 Jan 02 | UK Politics
Blair handles diplomacy hazards
07 Jan 02 | Media reports
Newspapers welcome Blair
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