Karzai marks "rebirth" of the Afghan air force

Kabul, January 16, 2008 (Reuters): President Hamid Karzai hailed what he called the rebirth of the Afghan air force at a ceremony on Thursday to open a new state-of-the-art headquarters at Kabul airport and the arrival of new helicopters.

Of some 500 aircraft the Afghan air force had during the 1979-89 Soviet occupation, including jet fighters, helicopters and transport planes, only four or five survived the ensuing civil war of the 1990s and the U.S.-led bombardment of 2001.

Since then, NATO and U.S.-led forces have become embroiled in a bitter fight with resurgent Taliban fighters mostly in the east and south of the country and rely heavily on air power to transport troops and equipment around the mountainous country.

Key to success against the Taliban insurgency is building up Afghan forces, but the Afghan Army Air Corps had until this year only eight transport helicopters and six helicopter gunships.

But the Czech Republic is now in the process of handing over six refurbished Russian-made Mi-35 helicopter gunships. The United Arab Emirates is also donating six refurbished Mi-17 Russian-made transport helicopters.

More planes and helicopters, purchased with U.S. funds will eventually build up the fledgling force to 61 aircraft by 2011, an Afghan army statement said.

"Today we are witnessing an extremely important moment in the development and rebuilding of our country, a moment I have long waited for," Karzai said. It marked the "rebirth" of the air force, he said.