BAGRAM AIR BASE, Jan 8: Flying in under cover of darkness on a camouflaged Royal Air Force plane amid tight security, British Prime Minister Tony Blair became the first western leader on Monday night to visit the new, post-Taliban Afghanistan.

The British premier’s lightning trip to the ex-Soviet military airport at Bagram, 50 kilometres north of Kabul, now transformed into a base for western troops, lasted some three hours.

“I feel an immense pride about what has been achieved but we know that the painstaking job of reconstruction has (still) to be done so the job is not complete,” Blair said.

The visit began with a bumpy landing, his C-130 Hercules military transport plane touching down at 10.55pm local time (11.25pm PST), after a flight from Islamabad.

He was welcomed at Bagram by Afghanistan’s interim government leader Hamid Karzai, who thanked Blair for arriving “at such a difficult time for us” and for pledging help in rebuilding the country.

“We would only have been glad to offer you the security to go to Kabul,” Karzai, dressed in a grey felt hat and traditional bright green robe, said.

Blair replied: “Unfortunately we have to do it this way.”

The need for tight security and the conditions on the ground meant the formalities were played out rather differently than how the British premier would normally expect during an official visit.

A late-night inspection of troops took place in a gloom barely pierced by electric torches. Afghan soldiers standing to attention under the eye of sabre-wielding officers seemed to have squeezed themselves into uniforms belonging to another age.

Mr Blair returned to Britain on Tuesday morning after a six-day South Asian tour.—AFP

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