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U.S. indicts alleged Afghan drug trafficker

Second court appearance scheduled for Wednesday

U.S. officials say Noorzai, seen here in an undated photo, provided weapons to the Taliban in return for protection of his opium crops.
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U.S. Attorney David Kelley: "One of the world's most wanted."

The Taliban allegedly turned a blind eye to Noorzai's empire.
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Acts of terror

NEW YORK (CNN) -- An accused heroin kingpin has been indicted and arrested in a massive narcotics conspiracy involving Afghanistan's former Taliban regime, U.S. Attorney David N. Kelley has said.

The U.S. indictment alleges that Haji Bashir Noorzai led an international trafficking ring based in Afghanistan and Pakistan that transported at least $50 million worth of heroin to the United States and other countries.

Noorzai made an initial appearance in Manhattan federal court Monday afternoon. He did not enter a plea. A second appearance is scheduled for Wednesday.

The U.S. Drug Enforcement Administration arrested Noorzai on Saturday while he was traveling to the United States, Kelley said, offering few other details.

Kelley said Noorzai "provided demolitions, weaponry and militia manpower to the Taliban," the Islamic fundamentalist group that ruled Afghanistan until a U.S.-led invasion toppled it in 2001.

In exchange, the Taliban "served as protection for Noorzai's opium crops, heroin laboratories and drug transportation routes out of the country," Kelley said.

The Taliban, which the U.S. government designates a terrorist organization, had allowed al Qaeda and its leader, Osama bin Laden, to live and train in the country.

"Noorzai and the Taliban had a symbiotic relationship," Kelley said.

Kelley, whose jurisdiction is the Southern District of New York, which includes Manhattan, declined to comment on reported links between the case and al Qaeda.

"There are published accounts about the relationship between the Afghan drug lords and al Qaeda, but that's not part of this case," Kelley said.

U.S. authorities previously have said Noorzai helped finance al Qaeda when it operated under Taliban protection in Afghanistan.

Noorzai "is perhaps the most notorious Afghan drug lord and has built over the last 15 years a multimillion dollar heroin business by forging an unholy alliance with [supreme Taliban leader] Mullah Mohammed Omar and the Taliban," Kelley said.

"On one occasion in 1997," Kelley said, "it is alleged that Taliban authorities in Afghanistan seized a truckload of morphine base that belonged to the Noorzai organization. It didn't take very long for ... Omar to have the drugs returned to Noorzai with Omar's personal apologies."

The seven-page indictment accuses Noorzai of plotting to distribute heroin as long ago as 1990, with the first shipment a 57-kilogram load in 1997. The indictment lists shipments to New York as recently as 2002.

Noorzai, who was born in 1961, allegedly smuggled an estimated 2,000 pounds of heroin a month from the Kandahar area Afghanistan to Pakistan, according to testimony last year before the House International Relations Committee.

The Bush administration had designated Noorzai one of the world's most-wanted drug kingpins.

Kelley said Noorzai -- if convicted -- faces a mandatory minimum prison sentence of 10 years and a maximum possible sentence of life in prison.

The government is also seeking as much as $50 million in forfeiture of assets as part of Noorzai's sentence, if convicted.

Afghanistan is one of of the world's main growers of opium poppies, the source of heroin. When in power, the Taliban was known to have benefited financially from its production.

The Bush administration recently pushed for legislation authorizing the payment of goods, such as tractors or trucks, instead of cash to potential informants in rural Afghanistan and Pakistan.

CNN's Deborah Feyerick and Phil Hirschkorn contributed to this report.

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