Afghan opium production at record level

Afghanistan's opium harvest is expected to reach its highest level since the U.S.-led forces toppled the Taliban regime in 2001, a UN report says.

Afghanistan's harvest of the raw material for opiumis expected to be the largest on record this year, according to aUN report released Monday.

The United Nations Office on Drugs and Crime (UNODC) reported the sixth consecutive annual increase inpoppy production since U.S.-led forces toppled the Taliban in 2001.

The harvest has grownin size even though the international community has spent tens of millions of dollarsto curb poppy cultivation. The total opium harvest will be 8,200 tonnes, up from 6,100 tonnes last year.

Afghanistan produced 93 per cent of the world's opium in 2007, up from 92 per cent last year, the report said, adding that international efforts to dissuade farmers from planting poppy crops in thesouthern provinces have been ineffective.

"The Afghan opium situation looks grim, but it is not yet hopeless," said UNODC executive director Antonio Maria Costa.

In the centre and north of Afghanistan, where the government has increased its authority and presence, opium cultivation is diminishing. The number of opium-free provinces more than doubled from six to 13, UNODC said.

Most production is in the south, where instability is much worse and NATO-led and Afghan government forces are battling the Taliban insurgency.

About 80 per cent of opium poppies were grown in a handful of provinces along the border with Pakistan in the south. In volatile Helmandprovince, where British troops are fighting the Taliban, opium cultivation rose 48 per cent to 102,770 hectares.