VIENNA (Reuters) - Opium production in Afghanistan increased this year to one of the highest levels on record as efforts to eradicate the crop in a country that provides much of the world's heroin collapsed, the United Nations said on Wednesday.
The United Nations Office on Drugs and Crime (UNODC) reports annually on opium poppy cultivation in Afghanistan, the world's biggest producer of opium and heroin, and is due to give its yearly update towards the end of this month.
"Unfortunately, preliminary results suggest that illicit cultivation has increased well above 200,000 hectares (494,000 acres)," UNODC Executive Director Yury Fedotov said in the text of a speech prepared for delivery to an international conference on Afghanistan in Brussels.
That would make it one of the top three years since the UNODC began providing estimates in 1994, according to previous reports by the Vienna-based agency. The greatest area recorded to date was 224,000 hectares in 2014.
"The production of opiates is expected to follow the same upward trend, Fedotov said. "Eradication has been close to zero."
Eradication rose 40 percent in 2015, to 3,760 hectares, according to the last UNODC annual opium survey for the country.
Fedotov did not give a reason for the increase in production but his agency's 2015 report said there is a "high correlation" between a poor security situation and poppy cultivation, and the government in Kabul is facing a resurgent Taliban 15 years after U.S. forces helped oust the militants.
Taliban successes on the battlefield have exposed the defensive limits of Afghanistan's NATO-trained armed forces which are supposed to number 350,000 personnel but which have been heavily depleted by casualties and desertion.
"Clearly we cannot afford to see international community engagement in Afghanistan weaken," Fedotov told the conference, at which world powers raised $15 billion to fund the country over the next four years.
(Reporting by Francois Murphy, Editing by Angus MacSwan)