London conference intent on human rights, Afghan’s economic

Boosting human rights and fueling economic development in poverty-stricken Afghanistan are at the top of the agenda for an international conference on the nation's future Wednesday. At the opening of the two-day meeting on Tuesday, representatives of more than 60 countries pledged to keep aid to Afghanistan flowing as it tries to rebuild and fight problems including opium production, corruption and terrorism.

Dignitaries spoke proudly of the country's achievements since a U.S.-led coalition toppled the hard-line Taliban regime in 2001. But they agreed that with desperate poverty widespread and violence flaring, it still had a long way to go.

"From a nation held hostage by terrorism and by terrorists, Afghanistan today is a nascent democracy," U.N. Secretary-General Kofi Annan said. However, he said, "our optimism is necessarily tempered by the serious challenges ahead, ... (including) terrorism, extreme violence, the illicit narcotics industry and the corruption it nurtures. ... We cannot be complacent."

U.N. human rights chief Louise Arbour will lead discussions Wednesday on making Afghanistan's government more transparent, strengthening the rule of law and protecting human rights. Afghanistan pledged in a five-year plan unveiled at the conference to build a functioning justice system in all its provinces by 2010 and reduce the number of people living on less than US$1 a day by 3 percent per year. The blueprint, dubbed the "Afghanistan Compact," laid out targets for Afghan President Hamid Karzai's government in areas including security, economic development and counter-narcotics efforts. Afghanistan promised to build a professional army and police force, shut down all armed militias by the end of 2007 and teach its officials about human rights.

It vowed to provide electricity to 25 percent of rural homes and 65 percent of urban ones by 2010, repair roads and set up a system of land registration. It also said it would reduce infant and maternal mortality rates that are among the worst in the world by 20 percent and 15 percent respectively by 2010.

"Afghanistan is proud to be once again a member of the family of nations," Karzai said at a news conference. International donors vowed in the compact to provide funds and other support to help Afghanistan meet its new goals.

U.S. President George W. Bush planned to ask Congress for US$1.1 billion (Ђ900 million) in aid for Afghanistan next year, a figure similar to the aid allocation for 2006, U.S. Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice said. Britain announced 455 million pounds (US$800 million; Ђ665 million) in new aid for Afghanistan over the next three years.

"The transformation of Afghanistan is remarkable but incomplete," Rice said before hurrying home to Washington for Bush's State of the Union speech later Tuesday. "And it is essential that we all increase our support for the Afghan people." British Prime Minister Tony Blair said that helping Afghanistan become a stable democracy was "in the interests of the whole international community,” reports the AP. I.L.

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