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Diplomats expelled

Kabul, Dec. 26 (Reuters): A diplomatic row erupted today between Afghanistan and key aid partners after Kabul declared “persona non grata” a Briton and an Irishman working for the EU and the UN.

Kabul accused them of threatening state security by meeting Taliban insurgents.

With Afghan President Hamid Karzai away in Pakistan, a government official said acting EU mission head Michael Semple and senior UN official Marvin Patterson had been expelled and must leave by tomorrow. “It is the government’s last decision. They are persona non grata,” the official said.

Western diplomats in Kabul closed ranks and insisted the row was merely a “misunderstanding”, adding they hoped the pair would only have to leave for a short period. Semple told Reuters that it would “not be appropriate” for him to comment on the matter at this time.

The government accused the pair, both old Afghan hands and experts in local languages and customs, of meeting Taliban members in the southern province of Helmand, heartland of Afghanistan’s drug-producing poppy industry and an insurgency stronghold.

“Not only did they hold talks with the Taliban, but also had given them money,” the Afghan official said.

“It is not clear whether they were supporting the insurgency or not.” He said it was also unknown if the meeting was a personal initiative or if they were acting in an official capacity, but 50 Afghans — some of them colleagues of the pair — have been detained and investigated over their links to the matter.

Western diplomats said it was highly unlikely the pair would have knowingly met official Taliban representatives and it was more likely they were talking to tribal elders or chiefs.

Semple and Patterson have lived and worked in Afghanistan for more than a decade, even during the rule of the Taliban that was toppled by the US-led invasion in 2001.

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