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Woman, 22, sought over $1.1 million theft from Afghan bank

Shokofa Salehi, 22, who is wanted in connection with the disappearance of $1.1 million from an Afghan bank
Shokofa Salehi, 22, who is wanted in connection with the disappearance of $1.1 million from an Afghan bankHandout / Interpol

KABUL, Afghanistan -- The young woman worked for three years at the Afghan bank, officials say. Then one day she vanished. As did $1.1 million.

Afghan authorities have been scrambling to track down the suspected thief and at least nine other alleged accomplices, and an international arrest warrant has been issued. Still, the revelations are another embarrassment for the banking sector in this country, which has seen corruption already unravel one major institution amid ongoing security threats from militants and criminals.

Shokofa Salehi, 22, worked in the money transfer division at the headquarters of Azizi Bank, a major Afghan lender in Kabul, officials said. She disappeared around two months ago, according to Azizi chief executive Inayatullah Fazli. Investigators say she is suspected of transferring some $1.1 million out of the bank's coffers to accounts of relatives. They believe at least 10 people aided the young woman.

“They are a mafia group,” Fazli alleged.

An Interpol red notice -- the equivalent of an international arrest warrant -- describes authorities as seeking Salehi on charges of fraud and misusing her authority. Afghan officials believe Salehi used fake documents under the name Samira to reach India after transferring the money; her current whereabouts are unknown.

Two suspects in the case have been detained in Dubai, senior Afghan police official Gen. Aminullah Amarkhail said, adding that he's in touch with counterparts in Dubai and India for help tracking down Salehi and other suspects. He said one suspect is alleged to have spent some $850,000 of the money to invest in a tire business and possibly other ventures in Dubai.

Amarkhail said Salehi's parents were among the suspects, and are believed to have returned to Kabul after going with her to India. Another top police official, Mohammad Zahir, said investigators were still seeking the parents.

Azizi Bank's website says it began operating in 2006, and that it now has “a 1,500-plus strong team of employees and with a 20 percent female work force is playing a quiet but effective role in women's emancipation and empowerment." It also calls itself "the bank you can trust.”

As striking as it is, Salehi's alleged pilfering pales in comparison to some other examples of corruption in Afghanistan's banking sector.

In 2010, regulators seized Kabul Bank, Afghanistan's largest lender, amid allegations of severe levels of graft. Its near-collapse and subsequent bailout represented more than 5 percent of Afghanistan's gross domestic product, making it one of the largest banking failures in the world in relative terms.

An independent report described Kabul Bank as being run like a Ponzi scheme. Investigators said some $861 million in fraudulent loans had disappeared into the pockets of associates of the men behind the bank.

Earlier this year, an Afghan tribunal sentenced two top Kabul Bank executives to five years in prison for misappropriating funds. Critics said the punishments were far too light and raised questions about President Hamid Karzai's commitment to rooting out corruption.

On Tuesday, Afghanistan announced it was trying once again to privatize what it had salvaged of the bank, which is now called New Kabul Bank.

Banks in Afghanistan have also been targeted by Taliban militants and criminal gangs.

Not only are they prime targets for people seeking to steal money, they also are gathering places for many government employees seeking to make deposits or cash their paychecks, thus making them attractive to suicide bombers.