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Afghans embrace new currency

Crowds beaten back amid rush to exchange money

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KABUL, Afghanistan — Unruly crowds were beaten back with wooden clubs and sprayed with a water hose Monday as they rushed to exchange old banknotes for Afghanistan's new currency.

The issuance of new bills was part of the government's attempt to regain control of chaotic monetary policies that have allowed the use — until now — of three different Afghan currencies.

Residents will be able to exchange old bills for new at 47 licensed exchange centers across Afghanistan until Dec. 7.

At the multistoried money exchange market in Kabul, soldiers were called to keep back crowds surging shoulder to shoulder toward just six shops that were distributing new bills.

The shops, though open, kept the metal security bars on their doors closed. The trusting among the crowd shoved wads of old bills through the spaces between the bars.

The crowds eased only when security forces began waving wooden truncheons in the air and banging them on walls. No injuries were reported.

"It's always busy here, but they don't usually have to beat people," said Amin Khosti, head of the market's money changers. "Everybody wants to see the new currency. Problem is, not enough of it has been distributed yet."

The lucky few waived small collections of single afghani notes in the air like trophies as they left. On the building above them, a soldier knelt strategically and sprayed water from a yellow hose to keep people away from the main gate.

The government expects the new money to simplify transactions, which once required huge bags of cash.

"Before if people wanted to buy bread, they had to take stacks of money with them to do it," President Hamid Karzai said on Sunday. "With the new money you'll be able to take one note and buy what you want."

One new afghani will be worth 1,000 old ones. The redenominated currency will include 1, 2, 5, 10, 20, 50, 100, 500 and 1,000 afghani bills.

Business in Kabul is done with a mixture of Pakistan rupees, U.S. dollars, and local afghanis.

Besides the main government currency, a second afghani, differing slightly from the first, is widely used in northern Afghanistan in territories controlled by Gen. Abdul Rashid Dostum. A third currency, printed in the 1990s, differs from the others only in that a higher series of numbers is written on it.

Dostum's money and the higher numbered bills are worth half the regular afghani. But all can be exchanged for new notes.

The government hopes the new money will cut down on the power of warlords — several of whom are reported to have access to their own printing presses.

"We printed this money to rescue people from having to use different currencies," Karzai said. "From now on, we'll have just one currency in Afghanistan that everyone can use."

The government estimates 15 trillion old notes are now in circulation. The old bills will be burned after they are handed over, and about 27 billion new afghanis will be introduced. The new notes, printed in Germany, will be harder to counterfeit, the government says.