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Tuesday, 18 December, 2001, 23:15 GMT
Resurrection for Afghan tunnel
People and vehicles outside Salang tunnel
Even in winter the pass is a hive of activity
Russian engineers have begun work to restore one of Afghanistan's major road links high up in the Hindu Kush mountain range that bisects the north-east of the country.

Originally built by the Soviets in 1964, the Salang road tunnel to the north of the capital Kabul provides the shortest and safest all-weather route from the north to the centre and south of the country.

And as such it has been of vital strategic importance.

But since its destruction by anti-Taleban forces led by famous mujahedin commander Ahmad Shah Masood, vehicles have had nowhere to go once they reach the tunnel's dark and imposing entrance.

War damage

This was the aim of Masood's forces when they blew up the tunnel while in retreat from the Taleban's advance on Kabul and again when the same forces detonated half a tonne of TNT there in 1998.

People walking through the tunnel
People have to navigate mostly in the dark

Whole families unable to afford to make the 300-kilometre (190 miles) detour by car have since been forced to struggle through the war-ravaged tunnel despite the winter snows.

As Russia TV correspondent Sergey Zenin reported, they scramble on foot over rubble and boulders through the 2.5km (1.5 mile) tunnel in total darkness.

An initial assessment by the team of experts from Russia's Emergency Situations Ministry found that the tunnel was largely intact, with the main problems being the lack of an energy supply and ventilation.

Fetid ravine

Mr Zenin described the problems faced by those using the tunnel.

"The air is fetid. Entire families pass through... carrying everything they own in huge bundles.

"One step either side and you'll plunge into a kilometre-deep ravine," he said, referring to a huge crater in the rock caused by the TNT blast.

Afghan tramps through snow
The tunnel isn't the only arduous part of the journey

However, the Afghans are a resilient people and at the northern end of the tunnel a small market thrives, with porters and taxi drivers crowding around for potential customers.

Russia TV said Afghan traders "are skilled at turning the situation to their advantage. Travellers emerging from the tunnel are willing to spend the last of their money to buy anything at all and feel that life goes on".

BBC Monitoring, based in Caversham in southern England, selects and translates information from radio, television, press, news agencies and the Internet from 150 countries in more than 70 languages.

See also:

01 Dec 01 | South Asia
Russia's Afghan aid invasion
28 Nov 01 | South Asia
No fanfare as Russians return to Kabul
28 Nov 01 | South Asia
Russians prepare aid operation in Kabul
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