Security tight as Afghans welcome in New Year

Hundreds of thousands of Afghans descended on a shrine in the northern city of Mazar-i-Sharif on Monday to welcome in the new year amid tight security.

Mazar-i-Sharif (Afghanistan): Hundreds of
thousands of Afghans descended on a shrine in the northern
city of Mazar-i-Sharif on Monday to welcome in the new year amid
tight security.

Police and military were on high alert ahead of a
planned new year announcement by President Hamid Karzai of
plans for a gradual transfer of responsibilities from foreign
troops to Afghan security forces.

Mazar is in Balkh province, traditionally one of the
most peaceful regions of the country, but the north has seen
an escalation of violence in recent years and police said
security in the town was tight.

"More than 3,000 Afghan security personnel have been
deployed to ensure the new year celebrations in Mazar-i-Sharif
pass off peacefully," the Balkh deputy police chief Abdul Raof
Taj said.

Home ministry spokesman Zemarai Bashary said the
government had ordered "the highest level of preparedness
across the country, with particular focus on major cities and
places where the new year celebrations take place."

A string of suicide bombings in public places have
left more than 200 Afghan civilians dead in recent weeks,
leading the International Committee of the Red Cross (ICRC) to
warn of a dramatic deterioration in security.

The United Nations has said 2010 was the deadliest
year for civilians in Afghanistan since the Taliban were
ousted in 2001, with 2,777 killed, 75 per cent due to
insurgent actions.

Afghans across the country celebrate the new year by
flying kites, dancing, going on picnics and watching games of
the riotous national sport buzkashi -- a form of polo played
with a goat carcass.

But the biggest celebrations take place in Mazar, home
to the mosque where it is believed Hazrat Ali, cousin of the
Prophet Mohammed, was buried.

Hundreds of thousands of Afghans from across the
country travel there every year to celebrate Nawroz, the
spring equinox and this year the start of the solar year 1390.

PTI

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