Turkey, Afghanistan, ex-Soviet trio sign corridor agreement
Ashgabat: A road and rail corridor connecting war-torn Afghanistan with Turkey and Europe was signed off by officials from five countries on Wednesday in Turkmenistan's capital Ashgabat.
The so-called Lapis Lazuli corridor agreement is the product of more than five years of talks involving Afghanistan and Turkey as well as the ex-Soviet countries Azerbaijan, Georgia and Turkmenistan.
The agreement is focussed on integrating customs procedures and stripping away logistical barriers affecting trade between the countries.
The Lapis Lazuli route, named after the brilliant blue semi-precious stone commonly found in Afghanistan, begins in the Afghan settlements of Aqina and finishes at the gateway to Europe in Istanbul.
Freight following the route will have to cross the Caspian Sea after traversing Turkmenistan before linking up with existing road and rail infrastructure in Azerbaijan.
Speaking at a regional integration conference focused on Afghanistan in Ashgabat, Turkey's deputy foreign minister Ahmet Yildiz said Ankara "welcomed" the trade route.
"This transport and transit corridor allows for the connection of Asia and Europe," Yildiz said.
Turkmenistan's trade minister Dovran Orazmyradov said on Tuesday that trade between gas-rich Turkmenistan and Afghanistan had increased 20 percent last year, reaching $513 million annually.
A railway linking the two countries that has been operational for a year and is part of the Lapis Lazuli corridor, which should boost that figure further.
But doubts about financing and concerns over security in Afghanistan have slowed down an expansion of the railway into Tajikistan, another ex-Soviet country.
China is also keen to include Afghanistan in its Belt and Road Initiative that aims to ramp up Eurasian trade through billions of dollars in infrastructural and other investments.
But the worsening security situation in Afghanistan following the massive withdrawal of troops from aUS-led coalition has slowed down a number of projects.