Fortescue Metals Group chairman Andrew Forrest has narrowly avoided being caught up in a deadly terrorist attack while negotiating a deal in Afghanistan.
Australia’s richest man and a Fortescue team were in Kabul last week when their key point of contact with the Afghanistan government, first vice-president Amrullah Saleh, was targeted by a terrorist bomb.
Mr Forrest has been travelling to some of the world’s most dangerous nations in search of new resource projects and pursuing philanthropic interests.
Mr Saleh escaped with his life but at least 10 other people were killed in an attack on a convoy on its way to his office in the capital.
The attack came during what Mr Saleh later described as two days of interaction with the Forrest delegation that was full of “experiences and inspirations”.
Within 24 hours of the terrorist blast, Mr Saleh – with burns on his face and his left hand in bandages – was with Mr Forrest at the presidential palace in Kabul for the signing of deeds of agreement between Fortescue and the government.
The deeds of agreement cover development of hydropower and geothermal projects as well as studies on a range of mineral resources, including copper.
The Forrest family’s philanthropic Minderoo Foundation signed separate agreements around fighting women’s cancer, scholarship funding, early childhood learning programs and training for healthcare workers.
It is understood Mr Forrest and his travelling party have since left Kabul ahead of a planned visit to the Democratic Republic of Congo.
Fortescue declined to answer questions about whether Mr Forrest and others in the travelling party were caught up in the terrorist attack, saying: “For privacy and security reasons, we will not comment on the arrangements and details of the travel itinerary for the group.”
The Minderoo Foundation also declined to comment and Mr Forrest could not be contacted.
The Australian Financial Review revealed on September 4 that Mr Forrest would not be returning to Australia for some time and intended to use Croatia as a home away from home. The report detailed his plans to visit war-torn Afghanistan, Pakistan and the DRC on top of his earlier visits to Papua New Guinea and Indonesia.
Mr Forrest took a risk many others, including the Australian cricket team, have been unwilling to take for years, by visiting Pakistan in the days before travelling to Afghanistan, where Australia still has troops on the ground and tens of thousands served in a long-running war against the Taliban.
Fortescue and Minderoo declined to answer questions on whether the Forrest party was under military protection while in Pakistan and Afghanistan.
‘A historic day’
Referring to the Fortescue and Minderoo agreements signed on September 10, Mr Saleh, an outspoken critic of the Taliban who has had other attempts on his life, said: “Today is a historic day because investors and billionaires go to the countries with great economic power for investing, but this time a billionaire has come to Afghanistan to invest.
“You [Mr Forrest] have not only invested in the mines and energy here, but you have invested in the hearts of our people in love and friendship.”
Afghanistan president Ashraf Ghani “thanked God” for sparing Mr Saleh in the terrorist attack a day earlier.
Mr Ghani thanked government officials, including Mr Saleh, and Mr Forrest and his travelling party for the work they had done over the previous day on deals that paved the way for a “new model of transformation” for the country.
“What is at stake is a completely new model of transformation that will hopefully open a path for Afghanistan like the path opened for Singapore in the 1960s, for South Korea in the 1970s and for China in the 1990s,” he said.
Mr Forrest, on behalf of Fortescue subsidiary Fortescue Future Industries, has signed similar agreements with PNG and Indonesia on developing green energy and mineral resources projects.
The agreements do not commit Fortescue to any investment apart from in feasibility studies but give the company a political foothold in the resource-rich nations.
In a statement, Mr Forrest said Fortescue and Minderoo were proud to join Afghanistan in “nation- and community-building agreements, particularly around education and health as they are at the very heart of any country’s development”.
“The green energy projects we are discussing will help Afghanistan realise a stronger, more resilient and sustainable future in which the whole country can prosper,” he said.
While in Pakistan, Mr Forrest met Prime Minister Imran Khan and the country’s board of investment.
The Pakistan government said the Fortescue delegation had visited sites in the country with potential for hydropower and green energy development and intended to assess investment opportunities.