DUSHANBE, 5 Nov 2002 (IRIN) - Humanitarian workers in Tajikistan have welcomed the opening of a bridge that provides a new route for vehicles carrying aid and goods in and out of war-ravaged Afghanistan. The bridge, opened by Tajik President Emomali Rahmonov and Prince Aga Khan IV, leader of the Shi'ite Ismaili Muslims, is the first vehicle bridge to span the Pyandzh river between the countries.
Vehicles can now be driven from Kyrgyzstan and Russia to Khorog in Tajikistan, then on to the Afghan capital, Kabul, through northeastern Afghanistan. The bridge has been largely funded by the philanthropic prince, who has given more than US $30 million in aid to various projects in Tajikistan since 1994.
"We believe it is extremely significant, because it creates a permanent link not only between two countries but between two peoples, and it's a step towards regional cooperation," Hakim Feerasta, Aga Khan Foundation representative in the Tajik capital, Dushanbe, told IRIN on Tuesday.
The bridge, opened on Sunday, will enable the food and aid pipeline to Afghanistan to operate more efficiently, particularly during the forthcoming winter months. Currently, most aid supplies for Afghanistan via Tajikistan have to be ferried across the Pyandzh river to reach northern Afghanistan.
"The bridge is not only a symbol but a material device of regional cooperation, which is needed to resolve the humanitarian issue in Afghanistan," Valentine Gatzinski, head of the Office for the Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs in Tajikistan, told IRIN.
The Aga Khan is to finance four more bridges across the 1,340-km border between the two Central Asian states. The construction work is scheduled to take three years and cost a total of $2.5 million. Much of the traffic between Afghanistan and the outside world has up to now moved across the Khyber Pass linking it with Pakistan.
Mathew Kahane, the UN resident coordinator in Tajikistan, believes that the bridge is significant for both countries. "This development represents the opening of a very firmly closed border and the opening is a tangible sign of peace and stability in Central Asia. It will give the much-needed access to Afghans to Khorog, and they can benefit from Tajikistan." he said.