TAPI gas pipeline draws unexpected support

An Afghan insurgent faction has voiced its backing for the construction of the multi-billion dollar 'TAPI' gas pipeline through Afghanistan, and even pledged to provide security on a project stalled for over a decade by politics and violence.

Turkmenistan, Afghanistan, Pakistan and India this month signed a preliminary agreement to push ahead with the `TAPI' pipeline, which is supported by Washington and would transport Turkmen gas over Afghan soil to consumers in India and Pakistan.

With Russian president Dimitry Medvedev currently visiting India, Moscow too is keen to join the network, and is in talks with officials in India on the issue. The project is seen as a rival to similar plans from Iran through its so-called Peace Pipeline.

Hezb-i-Islami, an insurgent force separate from the Taliban and led by former prime minister Gulbuddin Hekmatyar, announced its full backing for the project and volunteered to help protect it, in a surprise statement emailed late on Saturday night.

"Hezb-i-Islami strongly supports this deal on the basis of which Turkmenistan's gas will be exported through Afghanistan to Pakistan and India," the statement said. "We are ready ... to help with the work arrangement and enforcement of security of the pipeline in areas where Hezb-i-Islami has influence."

The group does not control most of the proposed route, which runs through the Taliban heartland in southern Helmand and Kandahar provinces. The government says it would bury the pipeline up to two metres underground there to ensure security.