Afghanistan Hunkers Down

Actor Robert De Niro and his wife, Grace Hightower, arrive at the premiere of Paramount Picture's "Stardust" at the Paramount Studio Theater on July 29, 2007, in Los Angeles. DeNiro appears in the movie.
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The hardline Taliban shut down Afghanistan's airspace on Monday, two weeks after threatening to close it if the United Nations did not lift sanctions against its beleaguered airline, said an international diplomat.

An estimated 110 flights cross the Afghan airspace every day. However, there are no flights currently landing in Afghanistan. The United Nations and the International Red Cross stopped flights to Afghanistan within two days of the terrorist assault on New York and Washington.

On Monday, Afghanistan stopped allowing any flights over the central Asian country, said a diplomat who spoke on condition of anonymity.

Afghanistan's Taliban have been twice sanctioned by the United Nations for refusing to hand over suspected terrorist mastermind Osama bin Laden. The latest round that took effect in January froze all assets of the state airline, Ariana, and banned it from all international flights.

The only exceptions were Muslim pilgrimage flights to Saudi Arabia and humanitarian flights were exempted. The latter exemption allowed the United Nations and Red Cross to fly into Afghanistan. But they both canceled their flights after the terror attacks last Tuesday. All international aid workers have been evacuated from Afghanistan.

The Taliban said they could no longer guarantee the safety of foreigners still living in Afghanistan and ordered them to leave last weekend.

The order followed increasing speculation of a U.S. retaliatory strike against Afghanistan's Taliban rulers, accused by Washington of allowing a global terrorist network led by bin Laden to operate on its soil.

So far the Taliban have said they cannot hand over bin Laden because he is a "guest" and it would be contrary to the tenets of Islam to turn a Muslim over to a non-Muslim.

Two weeks ago the Taliban authorities said they wrote a letter to the United Nations warning they would shut down their airspace if the sanctions against its airline was not lifted.

Each time an aircraft flies over Afghanistan the airline has to pay Ariana $400. Each day the airline makes roughly $5,000 in payments by airlines. The money is deposited in accounts in Geneva that are frozen because of the sanctions.

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