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Phone-starved Kabul gets first mobile system

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KABUL, Afghanistan — The Afghan capital Kabul got its first mobile telephone system Wednesday, giving U.N. officials and government ministers easy international dialing from the phone-starved city.

The Swedish telephone company Ericsson provided 200 telephones and all the necessary equipment in an initiative with the United Nations to provide reliable communications quickly to disaster areas, U.N. spokesmen said.

Kabul, the best-connected city in all of Afghanistan, has only 32,000 landline phones for more than a million residents.

It has three separate systems, some badly damaged by the last 23 years of war, and anyone who can afford it simply bypasses them all and uses a satellite telephone.

"This is a great example of the private sector helping the United Nations," said Ahmad Fawzi, spokesman for the U.N. special envoy for Afghanistan, Lakhdar Brahimi, who received the first telephone.

Not everyone was pleased. Abdul Rahim, communications minister in Kabul's interim administration, has complained that the United Nations did not properly consult him before installing the system's equipment on a hill in central Kabul.

U.N. spokesmen announcing the launch of the emergency system, due to last only six months, could not say whether there had been sufficient consultation with Rahim.

"Maybe there was some misunderstanding with the minister," said Jordan Dey, spokesman for the U.N.'s World Food Program, which coordinated the system with Ericsson. "This is not a commercial network."

He said Rahim would soon have one of the telephones for his own use. The U.N. will carry the costs for all calls made on the network, which will also be open to nongovernmental organizations.

Kabul's three telephone networks are divided among mutually incompatible analog, digital and digital wireless systems. Much of its cabling and phone sets are antiquated.

Overall, Afghanistan has less than 50,000 telephones for a population of 25 million. Rahim has ambitious plans to expand telephone services, but says much depends on whether foreign donors will put up the cash to repair existing systems and invest in new technology.