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Afghanistan faces airborne gold exodus

Gold bullion is flying out of Afghanistan in increasing volumes under suspicious circumstances, with both Afghan and US officials concerned that they are witnessing a fresh wave of money laundering.

The New York Times reports that gold bullion is being taken out of Afghanistan via commercial plane flights with increasing frequency, with couriers sequestering staggering amounts of bullion in carry-on luggage or jacket pockets.

One courier recently brought 60 pounds of gold bars on board an early morning flight, whose total value is estimated to be in excess of USD$1.5 billion. Airport  security forms indicate that 560 pounds of gold, valued at around $14 million, was removed from Afghanistan via passengers on commercial flights during the final two weeks of October alone.

It is perfectly legal for the gold to be carried onto commercial plane flights by people departing from Afghanistan, and much of it is reportedly comprised of old and damaged jewellery intended for repair by skilled artisans in the Persian Gulf.

Yet a sudden surge in the amounts being shifted since the early summer has left officials concerned that they are witnessing a spate of money laundering, as very little of the precious metal is mined in Afghanistan at present and so much of the gold exiting the country is destined for Dubai, where officials ply few questions about its intended purposes.

A report released last week by the United States Special Inspector General for Afghanistan Reconstruction  raises the concern that smuggling in bulk of cash, and now gold, is being used to ”finance terrorist, narcotics and other illicit operations.”

One Afghan official says that the sudden growth in gold shipments is undoubtedly tied to the illicit activities which currently comprise so much of the Afghan economy, such as opium production.

Another possibility is that Iran, which already purchases US dollars and Euros in Afghanistan to dodge trade sanctions, is purchasing the gold in Afghanistan under the same motivations.

A dealer in Kabul says that some traders are helping Iran to buy gold in Afghanistan via payment in either oil or Iranian rials, which are widely accepted in the west of the country. Afghan dealers subsequently take the gold to Dubai, where it is sold for dollars, and then shifted to China where is it used for the purchase of goods or remitted back to Iran.