SERKHETABAT - Turkmenistan, Afghanistan, Pakistan and India on Friday ceremonially broke ground on the Afghan section of an ambitious, multi-billion dollar gas pipeline expected to help ease energy deficits in South Asia.

Afghan President Ashraf Ghani and Turkmen counterpart Gurbanguly Berdymukhamedov joined Pakistani premier Shahid Khaqan Abbasi and India's Minister of State for External Affairs MJ Akbar for the ceremony at gas-rich Turkmenistan's border with Afghanistan.

Dignitaries including diplomats from the foreign missions in Turkmenistan were greeted by Turkmen national songs and traditional nomadic tents serving up food on an overcast day at the border post of Serkhetabat, once the southernmost tip of the Soviet Union.

Speaking at the ceremony, Ghani said the pipeline would "unite (the) countries" in quotes translated into Russian for reporters at the ceremony.

"There were pessimistic voices, but now we are witnessing the construction of the TAPI gas pipeline," said Ghani, using the acronym for the conduit which takes its name from the four countries.

The quartet aims to complete the 1,840-kilometre pipeline and begin pumping natural gas from Turkmenistan's giant Galkynysh gas field by the beginning of 2020.

While the pipeline will traverse war-wracked Afghanistan, raising security concerns, the Taliban pledged to cooperate with TAPI, saying it will be an important element in Afghanistan's infrastructure.

The pipeline will run for hundreds of kilometres through areas of southern Afghanistan largely controlled by Taliban insurgents fighting the Western-backed government in Kabul but the movement has signalled that it will not hinder the project.

The Taliban issued a statement on Friday, pledging its cooperation with TAPI, which it said would be an important element in building up Afghanistan’s economic infrastructure. “There will be no delay in this important national project,” it said in a statement, which blamed the government in Kabul for delays in starting construction.

The Taliban said: “The TAPI pipeline is an important regional project whose groundwork was initiated during the Islamic Emirate’s rule.”

However, the statement claimed, the project had faced delays due to America’s military presence in the region. The launch of work on the Afghan section of the pipeline was happy news for all Afghans, it added.

“In areas under its control, the Islamic Emirate announces full cooperation on implementation of the project and associated dimensions of the pipeline draw attention to the principle of the Emirate,” the movement added.

Under the Afghan government, holding a global record of corruption and embezzlement, no game-changing economic development scheme has been carried out so far and that was why the TAPI pipeline was also marred by massive graft, the Taliban alleged.

The insurgent movement vowed to check corruption in implementation of the scheme if it found signs of acts that infringed on people’s rights or showed misappropriation by the rulers.

The group blamed the US for indirect meddling on a massive copper project in central Logar province. To achieve their designs, it feared, the Americans might try to impede the TAPI pipeline.

The bulk of the 33 billion cubic metres of gas to be pumped annually through the conduit will be purchased by South Asian rivals Pakistan and India.

Turkmen strongman Berdymukhamedov, whose country currently depends heavily on China as a market for its natural gas exports, called diversification of gas deliveries an "important part of the politics" of the isolated Central Asian country.

And he said work on the Turkmen section of the pipeline was still ongoing.

India's commitment to the pipeline has previously been questioned over its relationship with Pakistan and easy-access to liquified natural gas markets seen as potential stumbling blocks.

But its minister of state for external affairs hailed the project as "a symbol of our goals" and "a new page in cooperation" between the four countries in a speech at the ceremony Friday.

The overall funding picture for the mammoth gas pipeline remains unclear, with commercial energy giants such as France's Total failing to follow up on reported interest in the project.

Turkmenistan sits on the world's fourth-largest gas reserves but lost a major buyer in Russia after Russian energy giant Gazprom wound down imports of Turkmen gas and then ceased purchases completely in 2016.

Meanwhile, Prime Minister Shahid Khaqan Abbasi noting the critical role of Afghanistan in the success of TAPI gas pipeline said the project was vital for prosperity of the region. "Let today be the start of a new era of peace, trust and prosperity in the region," Abbasi said at Herat, Afghanistan on the second leg of the ground breaking of the TAPI pipeline project’s link-up with road, rail and fiber-optic network.

Prime Minister Abbasi in his address, broadcast by the PTV back home, said the historic project would impact hundreds of millions of lives of the people of the region.

He appreciated the vision of presidents of Afghanistan and Turkmenistan and congratulated the people of the countries involved in the project. He also thanked the leadership of the respective countries for bringing the people closer to each other by enhancing connectivity in the fields of energy, power, air, IT, rail and economic zones. He viewed that the interdependence in the region was vital for sustainable peace.

The prime minister, appreciating the role of Afghanistan in the ambitious project, said TAPI could not happen without Afghanistan. He expressed gratitude to President Ashraf Ghani for ensuring success of this project and for bringing the people of the region closer.

He was optimist that the project would strengthen historical ties and reiterated Pakistan's full commitment for Afghan peace and assured that the commitment would remain unchanged.

The prime minister believed that no country was more interested in peace and stability in Afghanistan than Pakistan. He told the international gathering that Afghanistan would not find any better partner to peace than Pakistan.

“Your success is our success. Your development is our development. Peace in Afghanistan is like peace in Pakistan,” he remarked.

An Agreement on Turkmenistan-Afghanistan-Pakistan power line was also signed on the occasion.

A Pakistani cultural troupe performed at the occasion along with their counterparts from partner TAPI countries.

The prime minister also attended a special handicrafts exhibition in the city along with heads of other member countries representing arts, culture of the four states followed by the inaugural ceremony.

The ambitious natural gas pipeline project entered its practical phase in Pakistan after the process of initiating front-end-engineering-and-design (FEED) route survey was formally inaugurated last year.