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By Farzad Lameh
LASHKARGAH –Taliban militants March 23 forced the shutdown of all mobile phone networks in Afghanistan’s southern Helmand Province.
“The mobile phone companies have shut down all their services in Helmand, citing warnings by the Taliban,” Ghulam Jailani Waziri, spokesman for the Ministry of Communication and Information Technology, said. “We are working along with local administrations and companies to resolve the problem as soon as we can.”
Earlier, the Taliban had ordered mobile companies in Helmand to switch off antennas during certain times of the night, but this is the first time they have completely shut down the mobile networks in this province.
The Taliban have regularly called on mobile companies to switch off their networks, threatening to destroy antennas and cell sites if companies defy the order.
“According to my information, the companies have decreased the amount of tribute they have been paying the Taliban,” Abdul Jabar, a MP from Helmand, told Central Asia Online. “If the companies raise the amount again, I am sure the ban will be lifted.”
Security forces were tracking insurgent communications and movements that relied on mobile phone use, the Taliban said.
Jabar rejected that argument, asking rhetorically why the Taliban did not block mobile services in other cities and provinces, too. “Because they receive cash and no tracking via mobile phones is happening,” he said, answering his own question.
“People have a very serious problem, because this is the 21st century and everything is co-ordinated via phones,” Jabar said.
The ban came a day after Afghan President Hamid Karzai announced that government forces would assume responsibility for security in Helmand’s capital, Lashkargah, in July – a first step toward a nationwide handover by the end of 2014.
A few other cities in southern Afghanistan endure a Taliban-imposed ban on mobile phone use at night.
Qari Yousuf Ahmadi, a spokesman for the Taliban, confirmed the shutdown, saying it was to prevent nighttime raids by coalition forces and to benefit the people of Helmand. He did not explain how the service cutoff would benefit them.
Taliban militants already have destroyed two towers of AWCC, one of the country’s major cell phone carriers, in Helmand.
Local officials could not be reached for comment because they all use mobile phones.
Afghan and coalition forces are not affected because they use satellite telephones for security reasons. The service cutoff affects local residents most. Land lines account for only 1% of phones in the province.
It is not clear when cellular service will resume in Helmand.