By JASON STRAZIUSO, Associated Press Writer Fri Jul 6, 4:06 PM ET
KABUL, Afghanistan - Fierce fighting broke out around Afghanistan on Friday, with battles in three separate regions killing more than 100 militants, part of a cycle of rapidly rising violence five years into the U.S.-led effort to defeat the Taliban.
The governor of northeastern Kunar province said villagers were claiming that airstrikes had killed dozens of civilians, though he said he could not confirm the report.
The fighting — in the south, west and northeast — continues a trend of sharply rising bloodshed the last five weeks, among the deadliest periods here since the 2001 U.S.-led invasion
More than 1,000 people were killed in insurgency-related violence in June alone, including 700 militants and 200 civilians. More than 3,100 people have been killed in Afghanistan this year, according to an Associated Press count based on information from Western and Afghan officials. Around 4,000 people died in violence last year.
U.S.-led coalition and NATO spokesmen on Friday emphasized that ground commanders had evaluated the terrain to prevent civilians casualties, though Kunar Gov. Shalizai Dedar said villagers had reported that 10 civilians were killed in an initial airstrike, and that a second strike killed about 30 people who were trying to bury the dead.
Dedar said he could not confirm the reports of civilian deaths but that he was not rejecting their validity either. He said around 60 militants died in the battle.
U.S. and NATO officials say Taliban militants threaten villagers into claiming that attacks killed civilians.
"There were some number of insurgents that were killed. We have no reason to believe that any civilians were killed at this time," said NATO spokesman Maj. John Thomas. He said soldiers called in airstrikes on "positively identified enemy firing positions" in a remote area.
Civilian deaths have been a growing problem for international forces here, threatening to derail support for the Western mission. President Hamid Karzai has repeatedly implored forces to take care to prevent such deaths.
Both a U.N. and the AP count of civilian deaths this year show that U.S. and NATO forces have caused more civilian deaths this year than Taliban fighters have.
In the south, militants attacked two police vehicles with gunfire and rocket propelled grenades overnight, and U.S.-led coalition and Afghan forces responded with artillery fire and airstrikes in what the coalition described as a "sparsely populated area" in Uruzgan province.
Gen. Zahir Azimi said 33 Taliban fighters were killed. The coalition reported "no indications" of civilian casualties and said no coalition or Afghan forces were killed or wounded.
In Farah, a western province bordering Iran that has seen little violence until this year, insurgents attacked an Afghan security patrol from fortified positions, wounding five Afghan soldiers, the coalition said.
Afghan and coalition forces, using gunfire and airstrikes, killed "over 30" insurgents, it said. The coalition also said a ground commander "carefully evaluated risk of collateral damage" before firing.
"It is important to note that many targets were not bombed or fired on due to (Afghan) and coalition force precautions against causing collateral damage," said Maj. Chris Belcher, a coalition spokesman.
In the country's east, two NATO soldiers died and several others were wounded during an operation Thursday, the alliance said.
The alliance did not release the soldiers' nationalities or the location where the clash and the bombing took place. Most foreign troops in the east are American.
The latest NATO casualties raised the number of foreign soldiers killed this year to at least 105.
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NATO force rejects claims of new Afghan civilian casualties
Fri Jul 6, 4:54 PM ET
ASADABAD, Afghanistan (AFP) - The NATO force in Afghanistan said Friday it had killed insurgents in bombing raids in the mountainous northeast but rejected local claims that around 30 civilians were dead.
International Security Assistance Force soldiers had requested the strikes in the rugged province of Kunar after coming under attack from several positions, it said in a statement.
The air strikes were called in against "positively identified enemy firing positions, including a hostile compound."
"Initial indications are that there were a number of insurgent casualties."
However "at this time there is no reason for us to believe that there are any civilian casualties of any type," said ISAF spokesman Major John Thomas.
Two ISAF soldiers were killed in the same area on Thursday, the force said earlier. Several others were wounded, along with Afghan soldiers and a civilian contractor.
A resident of the province's Watapour district said aircraft had killed 36 people in raids late Thursday and Friday.
"Last night foreign forces helicopters bombed a civilian house close to our house in Watapour district and killed nine people from one house," a local named Shafiqullah Khatir told AFP.
"Only one little girl, who was wounded, survived the attack."
Foreign forces had agreed to stop the operation until the nine had been buried, he said.
"But once the funeral ceremony was on, the helicopters came and bombed the crowd, killing 25 civilians and two shepherds," he said.
A member of the upper house from the province, Saleh Mohammad, also said: "According to my information from the region, around 30 civilians have been killed in Watapour."
Afghan authorities in the province refused to comment.
ISAF and the separate US-led coalition are under fire for heavy civilian casualties in operations against the Taliban and its allies, most of which arise from use of air power.
The area, near the border with Pakistan, is remote and the claims of the toll were impossible to verify independently.
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Suicide attack near Afghan capital
Fri Jul 6, 6:06 AM ET
KABUL (AFP) - A suicide bomb exploded near a foreign military convoy on the outskirts of the Afghan capital Friday, damaging some vehicles but killing only the attacker, police and the NATO-led force said.
"It was a suicide car bomb attack against foreign troops," police criminal investigation department chief General Alishah Paktiawal told AFP.
"There were no casualties."
NATO's International Security Assistance Force said the blast, on the eastern outskirts of the city, appeared to have been against an ISAF convoy.
"We have no report of any casualties," a spokeswoman said. "We think it's an IED (improvised explosive device) against an ISAF convoy and one vehicle was disabled but we have no confirmation yet."
Foreign troops immediately cordoned off the area. A few vehicles were damaged, interior ministry spokesman Zemarai Bashary told AFP. He also said it was a suicide attack.
The separate US-led coalition said it was unaware of the blast.
Taliban insurgents, backed by Al-Qaeda, regularly carry out Iraq-style suicide attacks against Afghan and foreign forces in Afghanistan but there have been about seven in the capital this year.
One on the outskirts of the capital on June 28 killed two American nationals from a US-based security firm and an Afghan woman.
A massive bombing in the centre of the city on June 17 killed 35 people, most of them police officers working at a police training academy.
It the deadliest attack since the extremist Taliban movement launched an insurgency after being toppled from government in 2001.
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Nato troops killed in Afghanistan
Friday, 6 July 2007 BBC News
Two Nato soldiers have been killed during an operation in eastern Afghanistan, the alliance said.
The alliance has not disclosed the nationalities of the soldiers or the place where the operation took place.
Most of the Nato soldiers serving in eastern Afghanistan are American, according to reports.
About 90 foreign troops have been killed in Afghanistan this year, most in combat for the Nato-led military force Isaf in the country's south.
On Wednesday, military officials said that six Canadian Nato soldiers and their Afghan translator were killed by a bomb blast in southern Afghanistan.
Nato-led and Afghan troops have been fighting with the Taleban in the region recently.
Correspondents say that the south of the country has this year seen the worst violence since the Taleban were ousted from power in 2001 by an international coalition.
Most of the soldiers deployed there are British, Canadian, Dutch or American.
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Afghanistan a Good Market for Iran
July 6, 2007
TEHRAN (Fars News Agency)- Afghanistan is a good market for Iran, a prominent Afghan industrialist said, inviting Iranian traders to make use of the trading and market opportunities existing in his country.
Head of the Industrialists' Union of western Afghanistan Ahmad Farhad Majidi described Iran as playing the greatest role in Afghanistan among neighboring countries, and further called for the consolidation of the two states' economic and industrial relations.
He said arrangement of such expos as the International Exhibition of Industry in Mashhad can help further expand Iran-Afghanistan relations.
The Afghan official also demanded an authoritative body be established to guarantee and boost bilateral economic exchanges and trading between Iran and Afghanistan.
He further viewed lack of knowledge as among the main impediments to the deepening of economic and industrial cooperation between Iran and Afghanistan, adding that holding of such fairs and exhibitions can help solve the problem.
To end his remarks, Majidi reminded the two countries' abundant commonalities, and called for the use of the ample but intact potentials and opportunities existing for the bolstering of mutual economic and industrial cooperation.
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Iran in Afghanistan, friendly foe
Some believe recent actions by Iran are deliberately paving the road to Afghanistan's destabilization, but others say a weak Kabul is not in the Islamic Republic's best interests.
International Relations and Security Network (ISN), Switzerland By Anuj Chopra in Herat, Afghanistan for ISN Security Watch (06/07/07)
Unlike much of Afghanistan, there are no signs of war in Herat, an ancient town in the western part of the country. Far from the dangerous haunts of the Taliban in southern Afghanistan, there is little insurgent activity here. Instead, there is prosperity and an economic boom, all thanks to neighboring Iran.
There is 24-hour electricity largely provided by the Islamic Republic. Street lights illuminate macadamized roads, a stark contrast to the capital Kabul where lengthy outages are frequent.
Situated just 120 km from the Iranian border, Herat is emerging as a nexus of trade routes between central and south Asia, and Iran is a major investor. The markets are deluged with Iranian goods from factories on the other side of the border. Major projects, including the Dogharoun-Herat Road, the Milak Bridge and several civil and cultural projects, are underway in Afghanistan, led by Iranian firms.
Iran also plans to establish a railroad system that will link the two countries.
And Afghan officials appear to feel that working with Iranian firms is easier than working with European firms, because of geographical convenience and lower transportation costs.
"Given the proximity, there's much scope for doing business here," Lailla Mercier, an Iranian-British businesswoman, told ISN Security Watch.
Mercier recently signed a three-year lease on a hotel in Herat owned by the municipality.
Since the fall of the Taliban, Iran's contribution to Afghan reconstruction has been close to US$1 billion. Trade between the two countries has touched US$260 million and is expected to rise further.
Iran and Afghanistan share deep ties such as language, religion and a similar culture. But despite the bonhomie, Iran is largely viewed with suspicion in Afghanistan.
Iran: Deporting refugees
According to reports, Iran deports a staggering number of Afghan refugees every day, which has led to accusations that the Islamic Republic is attempting to destabilize its neighbor. So far, more than 100,000 have been sent to Afghanistan in the past two months, compared with 146,387 deported in 2006, according to the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR).
About 1.5 million illegal migrants live in Iran with an additional 950,000 registered Afghan refugees. Iran received millions of refugees during the Soviet occupation of Afghanistan and the subsequent civil war. Many Afghans found secure jobs and a stable life in Iran.
Even though Iran has been deporting refugees for years, the pace has quickened of late. Nearly 2,000 refugees a day are sent back to Afghanistan through the Islam Qala border crossing - about 120 kilometers west of Herat - almost all of them penniless and empty-handed. The return of these and other refugees is straining Afghanistan's resources.
Syed Hassan Hussaini, 27, says he was picked up last week by Iranian police, manhandled and stuffed in a bus with other Afghan refugees. He told ISN Security Watch that he was dropped off unceremoniously at the Islam Qala border crossing.
His family migrated to Iran during the Russian invasion when he was two. Hussaini was studying literature at Tehran University when he was deported by the Iranians. He was not given the opportunity to collect his belongings, he says. And there's little chance he will be allowed to go back and complete his degree.
Nine family members are still in Iran – in hiding – and he has had no contact with them since he arrived here last week.
"I hate Iran for doing this to me," he said. "They treat Afghans like animals."
The director general of Iran's Bureau for Aliens and Foreign Immigrant Affairs, Ahmad Hosseini, denies such allegations of abuse and defends his country's decision to implement full-scale deportation. He points to the rising number of refugees accessing the country's subsidized petrol, food and housing, putting tremendous strain on Iran's economy.
"The money we were supposed to spend on reconstruction for our own country has been spent on [Afghan] refugees. Today when we count the cost, it is US$7 billion a year, or US$6 per Afghan every day," he told the Associated Press in June.
Accusations of destabilization attempts haunt Iran
Washington accuses Iran of using Afghanistan as a buffer and a place to foment aggressive action toward the US . Some believe the Iranian Foreign Ministry is staging a friendly public relations campaign with Afghanistan, supporting the Afghan government, while its religious armed forces and intelligence are discreetly supporting and providing arms to the Taliban.
"Iran is like a wolf in the clothes of a sheep," Halim Fidai, well-known Afghan journalist and president of the South Asia Free Media Association (SAFMA), told ISN Security Watch in Kabul. "It is quietly, yet actively, turning Afghanistan into another Iraq."
In a 28 June interview with the Council of Foreign Relations (CFR), Admiral Michael McConnell, the US director of national intelligence, said there was "overwhelming evidence" that Tehran was supporting insurgents in Iraq and "compelling" evidence that the same was happening in Afghanistan.
Sharafudeen Stanikzai, a reporter for Radio Free Afghanistan, has documented and photographed Iranian-made land mines in western Afghanistan near the border with Iran.
"There's no Taliban in this region," he told ISN Security Watch. "It's hard to believe these weapons are coming in without the knowledge of the Iranian government."
Afghanistan shares a 928-km border with Iran ,which runs along three Afghan provinces. It is largely porous and unpatrolled, making it easy to smuggle arms into the nearly empty landscape of scruffy plains, treeless hills and the foothills of the Barkharz mountains in the north.
NATO Secretary-General Jaap de Hoop Scheffer announced recently that a powerful and sophisticated type of roadside bomb prevalent in Iraq - the explosively formed projectile (EFP) - had been discovered near a university in Kabul. EFPs are lethal and capable of destroying armored vehicles. Used by insurgents in Iraq, suicide and roadside attacks using EFPs have become common in Afghanistan as well.
Scheffer said these weapons were crossing the border from Iran into Afghanistan and turning up in the hands of Taliban fighters.
Analysts also warn of a nexus of interests emerging between Iran, Russia, Taliban remnants and renegade Afghan militia leader Gulbuddin Hekmatyar, all of whom are believed to want to see Afghanistan destabilized.
Iran is boosting the tribal, ethnic and sectarian religious rivalry in Afghanistan to keep the country weak and insecure and to ensure that the US and NATO fail in their mission, local analysts say.
They also believe that the Islamic Republic's intention in Afghanistan is to put pressure on the US by threatening the 27,000 US troops fighting the Taliban there.
Despite Kabul's repeated assurances that it would not allow its soil to be used for attacks against its neighbors, Iran sees the US presence in Afghanistan as a threat to its national security at the height of the nuclear standoff.
Details have also begun emerging that US intelligence has been training and providing arms to Jundollah (Army of God) militants in camps inside Afghanistan. These reports come from the Voice of America, a US federal government media service. Jundollah is a militant Islamic group (Sunni Muslim) based in Pakistan's Balochistan and said to have ties to al-Qaida. The group is fighting for an independent Balochistan in Pakistan's Balochistan Province and Iran's Sistan and Balochistan Province. The group has reportedly killed a number of Iranian soldiers.
In the meantime, Iran says that US accusations that it is attempting to destabilize Afghanistan are "100 percent lies."
"There is no clear evidence that the Iranian government is behind the weapons discovered," Dr Najeeb Ur Rahman Manalai of Kabul's Centre for Conflict and Peace Studies, told ISN Security Watch. "They might even be coming from some anti-Iranian insurgent groups operating in Iran."
Manalai said that while continued US occupation of Afghanistan was not in Iran's vital interests, Afghanistan's long-term stability was of utmost concern to Tehran.
Shia-dominated Iran has had a fundamental problem with the Taliban's virulent anti-Shi'ite ideology, and would be averse to forge any serious relationship with them.
The Iranian leadership will not easily forgive the Taliban for massacring thousands of Shi'ites in the Hazarajat region and in northern Afghanistan during its reign in Kabul. Tehran came close to war with the Taliban when they executed eight Iranian diplomats in Mazar-e-Sharif in 1997.
Throughout the Taliban period of rule, Iran was a principal backer of the Northern Alliance. Even today, the Afghan bazaar is awash with Iranian weapons that were supplied to Northern Alliance groups during the anti-Taliban resistance in the late 1990s.
The Institute for War and Peace Reporting in London has been monitoring Northern Alliance groups in Afghanistan clandestinely selling their stockpiles of weapons to the Taliban. NATO contingents have also independently confirmed such smuggling.
And these could be the same Iranian-made weapons recently discovered in Afghanistan.
The Karzai-led Afghan government has emphatically rejected allegations that the Iranian government was sending weapons to Taliban fighters. "We don't have any such evidence so far of the involvement of the Iranian government in supplying the Taliban," he said in June. "We have a very good relationship with the Iranian government. Iran and Afghanistan have never been as friendly as they are today."
Karzai visualizes Tehran as a balancing factor in Kabul's troubled equations with Islamabad, say analysts.
Of all Afghanistan's neighbors, apart from India, Karzai has worked tirelessly to maintain a steady and cordial political relationship with Iran, irrespective of the tensions between Washington and Tehran.
"Afghanistan already has a troubled relationship with Pakistan," says Manalai. "It can't afford making more enemies in the region."
Anuj Chopra is a freelance journalist whose stories have appeared in The Christian Science Monitor and The San Francisco Chronicle, among other publications. Chopra lives just outside Mumbai in India and is the 2005 recipient of the CNN Young Journalist Award in the print category.
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Turkmenistan, Afghanistan set up commission on economic coop
ASHGABAT, July 6 (Itar-Tass) - Turkmen and Afghan presidents Gurbanguly Berdymukhammedov and Hamid Karzai seek to step up cooperation in fuel and energy complex, trade and transport.
A joint statement of the Turkmen-Afghan intergovernmental commission on trade and economic cooperation was published in Turkmenistan’s mass media on Friday.
Karzai is on a two-day visit to Turkmenistan.
The commission will focus on “new projects to build power lines and power supply facilities to increase power exports from Turkmenistan to Afghanistan.”
The two leaders also agreed “to create favourable conditions for stronger bilateral trade” and signed agreements on trade and economic cooperation and on transit cargoes.
They found it expedient to draft agreements on consular issues, culture and education, and cooperation of law enforcement agencies. The two presidents will also take steps to open passenger air communication and automobile passenger traffic between Ashgabat and Kabul.
Turkmenistan and Afghanistan signed a protocol on bilateral consultations to hold annual meeting between the two countries’ foreign ministers in the two capitals in turn.
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Turkmenistan Still Interested In Trans-Afghan Pipeline
Radio Free Europe / Radio Liberty
July 5, 2007 -- Turkmenistan says it is still interested in a $2 billion project to build a gas pipeline across Afghanistan to Pakistan and India.
President Gurbanguly Berdymukhammedov made the comment to his Afghan counterpart, Hamid Karzai, who started a two-day visit to Turkmenistan today.
Berdymukhammedov also said his country will be ready to ship 30 billion cubic meters of gas annually through the pipeline. Karzai said all countries along the pipeline's route would stand to gain.
A spokesman in Kabul said earlier in the day that Afghanistan is hoping the project will create 12,000 jobs for Afghans and eventually bring in $300 million in annual transit tariffs.
(compiled from agency reports)
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Afghan army far from prepared: German FM
BERLIN, July 5, 2007 (AFP) - The international community has failed to deliver on its promise to rehabilitate the Afghan army which is still far from able to secure the country, Germany's foreign minister said Thursday.
Frank-Walter Steinmeier told foreign reporters that a commitment made during an international conference in London last year to equip and train 85,000 Afghan soldiers remained unfulfilled.
"Today, we are at a training level of 30,000 men, meaning more than 50,000 short of the objective," he said.
He cited progress, however, in police training. The arrival of 160 European police trainers last month has greatly increased the program's capacity, he said.
NATO's International Security Assistance Force and a US-led coalition have sought to bring calm to the country.
"Our aim is to put Afghanistan back into the hands of the Afghan people," he said.
The Taliban extremist movement was in government from 1996 to 2001 before being toppled in a US-led invasion for sheltering the Al-Qaeda network, which is now supporting their insurgency against the Western-backed government.
On Thursday, a suicide attacker blew himself up at a police gathering in southern Afghanistan, killing nine people including a boy, while a NATO force soldier died in a separate blast.
The two attacks occurred as a German national and his driver abducted a week ago in the southwest of the country were released. The Taliban denied being responsible for their capture.
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Western forces hooked on air power in Afghan war
By Mark John
BRUSSELS, July 5 (Reuters) - Western forces are unlikely to curtail the use of lethal air power against Taliban forces in Afghanistan, despite a wave of civilian casualties threatening support for the mission, analysts and military sources say.
An aversion in NATO capitals to allied casualties, plus all-too-frequent shortages of ground troops, have forced commanders to turn to the sky in efforts to beat insurgents still going strong six years after the U.S.-led invasion.
Despite repeated criticism of Western tactics by President Hamid Karzai, and pledges by NATO and U.S. officials to review procedures, few expect an overhaul of strategy by the 50,000 international troops there any time soon.
"We are aware this problem has grown and we must redouble our efforts. But there will be no overnight transformation," an alliance source said on condition of anonymity.
The Afghan government, rights and aid groups say over 300 civilians have died this year from Western operations, mostly when air power is called in to get allied troops out of trouble.
While NATO officials point to surveys showing a majority of Afghans still in favour of their presence, the deaths tarnish the image of the Western-backed Karzai and have triggered protests demanding the exit of foreign troops.
NATO's top operational commander, U.S. General John Craddock, announced a review of procedures in May. Days later President George W. Bush pledged with NATO Secretary-General Jaap de Hoop Scheffer to try to reduce the casualties.
Yet the deaths keep coming. Afghan officials say 45 civilians were killed last weekend by an air strike in the south -- a figure the NATO-led International Security Assistance Force (ISAF) says is inflated.
TOO FEW TROOPS?
De Hoop Scheffer has urged better coordination on the ground between NATO forces, the separate U.S.-led coalition and Afghan troops. He also wants faster investigations of incidents and more humanitarian relief for victims.
While coordination with Afghan forces has been messy, alliance sources are broadly happy with ties between ISAF and the U.S.-led coalition.
The coalition has focused on aggressive counter-terrorism operations, whereas the 40,000 ISAF troops have a peacekeeping mandate, but the line between the two has been blurred by the mounting insurgency.
Some say more aid and faster probes of accidents might limit the public relations damage from incidents, but would not in themselves reduce casualties.
Others blame the small size of the troop presence -- less than a third of that in Iraq for a country 1.5 times as big -- for what they see as excessive reliance on air power.
"If the Taliban withdraw to a village, there is an inability to send troops forward on the ground to clear that village. That is very manpower-intensive," said Christopher Langton of the London-based International Institute for Strategic Studies.
Even if further troops were available -- and there are no signs that any of NATO's 26 members or partner nations are in the mood to stump up more -- some analysts sense a preference for air power over riskier deployments of ground troops.
"Countries such as Canada are already under pressure to reduce troops," said Matthew Clements, Eurasia editor at Jane's Country Risk report. "They don't want more casualties."
Given the limitations of Western forces and the Taliban tactic of using human shields, Langton said NATO and its allies would do better to adopt a less aggressive approach and consider negotiating ceasefire deals in some cases.
However, noting how the U.S. general currently running the NATO Afghan effort bluntly condemned one such pact made by his British predecessor, Langton added: "I don't think Dan McNeill would ever accept that."
Reacting to criticism that they were losing the public relations battle, NATO officials have stepped up criticism of the insurgents, with de Hoop Scheffer lashing out at those who "behead people, burn schools, kill women and children".
And, despite McNeill's reputation as a no-holds-barred commander, alliance sources insist there has been a subtle fine-tuning of operations under his watch that they hope will start to translate into a lower toll in civilian lives.
"Ultimately it is up to a commander whether there are fewer air strikes. But is killing 10 Taliban worth killing five civilians? The answer is 'No', and that is fully understood," one source said.
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