KABUL (AFP) - A rare bomb attack against foreign forces in northwestern Afghanistan killed a Finnish soldier and wounded four Norwegians Wednesday, as two people died in the latest in a spate of suicide blasts to hit Kabul.
The Taliban extremist movement meanwhile distributed a voice recording said to be of Mullah Dadullah's brother urging fighters to intensify attacks on "infidel forces" to avenge the top commander's killing this month.
The Finn was the first from his country's contribution to NATO's International Security Assistance Force to be killed and the first ISAF soldier to die in an attack in the normally calm northwestern province of Faryab.
He was killed four days after three German soldiers died in a suicide blast in the northern province of Kunduz, which has also been relatively free of the insurgency-linked violence normally staged in the south and east.
The Taliban said it had carried out the Kunduz attack, which also killed six Afghans.
There was no immediate claim of responsibility for the Faryab bombing, which killed the soldier outside an ISAF base in the capital Maymana, according to the Finnish military.
Four Norwegian soldiers were slightly wounded, the Norwegian military said.
A police deputy intelligence chief in Maymana, Isatullah Sangarmal, said an Afghan civilian was also killed and another wounded. The blast struck a foot patrol returning to base, he said.
Finland has about 70 soldiers with the international deployment that arrived after the extremist Taliban government was toppled in 2001. Wednesday's death was its first, according to the icasualties.org website which lists casualties.
Norway has around 350 soldiers in ISAF. A Norwegian trooper was killed in 2004 in a rocket attack in Kabul. Around 60 foreign soldiers in the Afghan mission have died this year, most of them US nationals and killed in action.
A Taliban spokesman meanwhile played to an AFP reporter in the southern province of Kandahar a recording he said was of Dadullah's brother telling men to "intensify your attacks on infidel forces to avenge the killing of Mullah Dadullah."
The brother, Mansoor Dadullah, had been appointed to take the slain commander's place, the spokesman said.
"When you capture government personnel you should also behead them," the voice says in the recording played over the telephone.
A new suicide blast struck Kabul on Wednesday, killing a policeman. One of six Afghans wounded died later, an official said.
The interior ministry said the attacker, on a motorbike, was being followed by police and blew himself up "before reaching his target."
A witness said however the bomber had been chasing an armoured vehicle which was struck in the blast. "I could see a man covered in blood inside the vehicle," he said.
It was the fourth suicide bombing inside the city this year.
Suicide attacks and other explosions around the country this month have killed 85 people, 15 of them foreign soldiers or civilians working for aid agencies or other groups, ISAF said Wednesday.
The 37-nation force announced separately that it had fired "precision weapons" at a meeting of Taliban leaders in the southern province of Helmand which is a nest of insurgents.
Some were killed, it said without giving details.
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Al Qaeda No 2 says fight goes on after Taliban slaying
Ayman al-Zawahri Wed May 23, 4:14 AM ET
DUBAI (Reuters) - Al Qaeda's second-in-command Ayman al-Zawahri on Wednesday eulogized Taliban leader Mullah Dadullah who was killed in Afghanistan and urged his followers to continue his fight against U.S.-led forces.
"The commander of the martyrdom-seekers has passed on ... a martyr ... having prepared, equipped and left behind hundreds of martyrdom-seekers who impatiently wait to swoop down on the Crusaders and their helpers," Zawahri said in an audio tape posted on Web sites usually used by al Qaeda-linked groups.
"So do not depart from his path, and continue his march, and be among the patient reward-seekers, for victory is in the hour of patience."
It was not immediately possible to verify that the voice on the tape, accompanied by a photograph of Zawahri and footage of Dadullah with his fighters, was that of Osama bin Laden's lieutenant.
Dadullah's death in a clash with Western and Afghan forces this month is widely regarded as the biggest blow to the Taliban since they launched their insurgency after U.S.-led coalition troops overthrew their radical Islamist government in 2001.
Nicknamed Afghanistan's Abu Musab al-Zarqawi after the slain leader of al Qaeda in Iraq, Dadullah was the main architect of suicide bombings, kidnappings of foreigners and Afghans, beheadings and the rise of violence in the south.
Zawahri compared Dadullah's death to Zarqawi's, saying it was the beginning of the end for U.S.-led forces in Afghanistan.
"If the martyrdom of ... Abu Musab al-Zarqawi was the beginning of the massive breakdown of the Americans in Iraq, then the martyrdom of ... Mullah Dadullah will break the back of the Crusaders and their helpers in Afghanistan and hasten their imminent defeat," he said.
The footage showed Dadullah greeting and chatting to fighters, and firing guns.
Zawahri said Western and Afghan forces attacked the Taliban commander twice before they were able to kill him.
"The commander of martyrdom-seekers has passed on ... having threatened the Americans and saying to them 'if you have atomic bombs, we have martyrdom-seekers,"' Zawahri said.
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Most Germans want to pull out of Afghanistan - poll
May 23, 2007
BERLIN (Reuters) - Nearly two thirds of Germans want their troops to withdraw from Afghanistan after three German peacekeeping soldiers were killed over the weekend, a poll published on Wednesday showed.
Carried out on Monday by the Forsa polling agency for weekly Stern magazine, the poll showed 63 percent of respondents believe Germany's Bundeswehr armed forces should withdraw from Afghanistan compared to 35 percent in favour of remaining.
Two percent were undecided, Stern said.
The poll reflects the country's increasing unease about the situation in Afghanistan and the resurgence of the Taliban.
Three German soldiers were killed in a suicide bomb attack in northern Afghanistan over the weekend, sparking calls from opposition leaders and members of the Social Democrats (SPD), one of the two "grand coalition" parties, for withdrawal.
The Taliban and allies such as the al Qaeda network have stepped up raids in the past 18 months in Afghanistan despite the presence of nearly 50,000 foreign troops led by NATO and the U.S. military, as well as some 100,000 Afghan forces.
In that period thousands of people, including more than 200 Western troops, have died in the violence, the bloodiest since U.S.-led forces overthrew the Taliban government in 2001 in retaliation for the Sept. 11 attacks on the United States.
With around 3,000 troops in Afghanistan, Germany is the third largest contingent in the NATO-led force.
Recent polls show Canadians are also becoming increasingly uneasy about their troops' involvement in Afghanistan.
During a visit to Afghanistan by Canadian Prime Minister Stephen Harper on Tuesday, Afghan President Hamid Karzai urged countries to remain in Afghanistan until the country manages to stay on its own feet or else "terrorists" will strike again.
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Germany hopes talks can help Afghan-Pakistan ties
Wed May 23, 7:56 AM ET
ISLAMABAD (Reuters) - Afghanistan and Pakistan, feuding over who is to blame for an escalating Taliban insurgency, have agreed to hold talks at a G8 meeting next week, Germany's Foreign Minister said on Wednesday.
Relations between Pakistan and Afghanistan, both important Western allies, have been seriously strained over the past 18 months by the intensifying insurgency in Afghanistan. They accuse each other of not doing enough to stop the violence.
German Foreign Minister Frank-Walter Steinmeier said his Afghan and Pakistani counterparts had both accepted an invitation to a Group of Eight nations foreign ministers' meeting in Potsdam, Germany on May 30.
"Without a regional approach, without engaging the neighbors of the country, we will not succeed in bringing a lasting peace to the region," Steinmeier, speaking through an interpreter, told a news conference with his Pakistani counterpart Khursheed Mehmood Kasuri.
Afghan and Pakistani forces clashed on their disputed border this month and 13 Afghans were killed, the Afghan Foreign Ministry said.
"It is a key factor to see that relations between Pakistan and Afghanistan improve, especially with an eye to those areas close to the border," Steinmeier said. "Both neighbors have to undertake efforts to further intensify contacts," he said.
Steinmeier said that was the main reason he had invited the foreign ministers to the Potsdam meeting.
"I am confident we will make a small contribution to improve the dialogue and to increase confidence-building measures between both countries," he said.
Germany has about 3,200 troops in Afghanistan, most in the north of the country. Though peaceful compared with the south and the east, three German soldiers and six Afghan civilians were killed in a suicide bomb attack in the north last week.
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Canada could extend Afghan mission, PM signals
May 23, 2007
KANDAHAR, Afghanistan (Reuters) - Canada could keep its military mission in Afghanistan beyond the scheduled February 2009 withdrawal date despite increasing pressure to bring the troops back on time, Prime Minister Stephen Harper indicated on Wednesday.
Harper made the comments during a surprise visit to Afghanistan, where 2,500 Canadian troops are based in the southern city of Kandahar.
Canada has lost 54 soldiers and a diplomat so far since sending troops to Afghanistan in 2002, most of the casualties coming last year in clashes with the Taliban.
"You know that your work is not complete. You know that we cannot just put down our arms and hope for peace," Harper told a crowd of soldiers at an outdoor ball hockey rink at the Canadian military base.
"You know that we can't set arbitrary deadlines and simply wish for the best. And you must also know that your hard work is making a real difference to real people and their families," he said.
Extending the mission could trigger more political problems for the minority Conservative government, which is already embroiled in a scandal over whether it ignored evidence that detainees handed over to Afghan authorities could be tortured.
Two of the country's three opposition parties -- who together control a majority of seats in Parliament -- want the troops back on schedule, while the third is demanding an immediate withdrawal.
Harper, who won a January 2006 election in part on a promise to increase defense spending, says his critics care more about the allegations of Taliban suspects than they do about Canada's troops.
"Each of you stands among the greatest of your generation. You are Canada's sons and daughters and your country, as much as this country, owes you a debt of gratitude and its unwavering support," Harper told the soldiers.
The prime minister, making his second trip to Kandahar since taking power, signed hockey balls for the troops and posed for photographs before donning body armor and flying by helicopter to a forward operating base southwest of the city.
The official opposition Liberals said Harper's remarks proved their assertion that the government had secretly planned all along to extend the mission beyond February 2009.
Critics say Canada's contingent is spending too much time fighting the Taliban and not nearly enough on helping to rebuild the country.
"It is clear in our minds that this prime minister never had any intention of leaving in 2009 ... it's normal in an international mission to have an exit strategy," said Liberal legislator Denis Coderre, a party defense spokesman.
Polls show Canadians are deeply divided over the wisdom of the mission.
Harper was in Kabul on Tuesday and handed out pencil cases to children in a school partially funded by Canadian aid.
"I'm not here because of the polls. I'm here because it's the right thing to do," he told reporters after talks with Afghan President Hamid Karzai.
(With additional reporting by David Ljunggren in Ottawa)
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INTERVIEW-Buying Afghan drug crop would hurt Taliban-general
23 May 2007 12:45:11 GMT By John O'Donnell
LANDSTUHL, Germany, May 23 (Reuters) - Western nations should club together to buy Afghanistan's drug crop and provide incentives to farmers to grow wheat instead, thereby starving the Taliban of funds, a U.S. general said.
General William Hobbins, who is advising on the NATO-led assault on Taliban strongholds in Afghanistan, said cash from heroin-producing poppies were paying for smuggled arms. But it was not the military's job to eradicate the poppy crop, he said.
"If the European Union and Western governments got together and bought the (poppy seed) crop and destroyed it and encouraged the growing of wheat it would probably be cheap," Hobbins said in an interview with Reuters.
"(Cheap) when you compare it to the health costs of heroin addiction or the cost of prisons."
Hobbins' recommendation is similar to that of the Senlis Council, a security think-tank which has advocated licensing the production of some Afghan opium to make medicines.
"I think heroin is the source of funds for the militants," said Hobbins, who also commands the U.S. air force in Europe.
"You cut that off and all of a sudden, the arms flow stops. There are many things the military is not geared to do. Eradication of crops is a good example."
Violence has surged in Afghanistan in recent months after a winter lull. Last year was the bloodiest since U.S. and Afghan opposition forces toppled the Taliban from power in 2001.
"There are some pushes going on now that it's springtime and the poppy seed harvest is almost over. What does that tell you about the people harvesting the poppies?" said Hobbins, implying they were linked to the insurgents.
Hobbins defended the allies' use of air strikes against the Taliban, which have caused rising civilian casualties that analysts say undermine support for the West's mission.
Allied forces too have argued among themselves as to how much force is appropriate. "I don't see limitations in the use of air power," said Hobbins, who also directed the air operation in Kosovo. "We are adapting to get very precise munitions in very small areas.
"The adversary are hiding in areas where they shouldn't be. They are hiding amongst non-combatants."
Hobbins said European terrorism was spreading.
"The terrorist network is expanding," said Hobbins. "All the areas there along the Russian federation -- there is a lot of roots of terrorism there. It is (also) in northern Africa so we are moving east and south."
Hobbins played down tensions with Russia which have recently come to a head over a proposed missile defence system in Europe.
"I have told my Russian friends that I'm not interested in flying against them. I want to fly on their wing. So that we together could handle a terrorist problem."
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Afghan poppy crop is headed for record
U.S., NATO officials see need to combine anti-Taliban, anti-drug trafficking efforts.
Associated Press Originally published May 22, 2007 via Baltimore Sun
KABUL, Afghanistan // Profits from Afghanistan's thriving poppy fields are increasingly flowing to Taliban fighters, leading U.S. and NATO officials to conclude that the counterinsurgency mission must now include stepped-up anti-drug efforts.
This year's heroin-producing poppy crop will at least match last year's record haul and could exceed it by up to 20 percent, officials say. That means more money to fuel the Taliban's violent insurgency.
"It's wrong to say that you can do one thing and not the other," Ronald Neumann, who recently stepped down as U.S. ambassador to Afghanistan, said of the link between anti-drug and anti-terrorism efforts. "You have to deal with both at the same time."
Afghanistan accounts for more than 90 percent of the world's heroin supply, and a significant portion of the profits from the $3.1 billion trade is thought to flow to Taliban fighters, who tax and protect poppy farmers and drug runners.
Drug control has not been part of the official mandate of international forces in Afghanistan. But there is a growing push for NATO's International Security Assistance Force, or ISAF, to play a more active role in sharing intelligence and detecting drug convoys and heroin labs, said Daan Everts, NATO's senior civilian official in Afghanistan.
There is "increasing international interest in seeing a more assertive supportive role in ISAF in the counternarcotics strategy implementation," he said, before quickly adding that it would not include eradication.
International forces also might provide support for operations targeting senior drug traffickers, Neumann said.
Military commanders who viewed drugs as a minor irritant in 2002, when poppy production was much lower, have reassessed the importance of the vast fields of red and white poppies their soldiers drive past in security convoys, said a Western official, who spoke on condition of anonymity because he didn't want to be seen as criticizing the military.
It's too early to say definitively what this year's crop will be. But another Western official with knowledge of the drug trade said it could exceed last year's record 407,000 acres by as much as 20 percent. The official declined to give his name because of the nature of his work.
Gen. Khodaidad, Afghanistan's deputy minister for counter-narcotics, said that estimate is likely accurate. "The problem is a lack of security, a lack of governance, the Taliban, drug lords, warlords and corruption," said Khodaidad, who goes by one name. "It's a bad list with very bad results."
Thomas Schweich, a senior State Department official, said he has briefed NATO ambassadors and Gen. Dan McNeill, the top NATO general in Afghanistan, on the need for increased military cooperation on the drug front.
There is a growing recognition that "counternarcotics and counterterrorism are effectively the same thing," said Schweich, the U.S.-based coordinator for counternarcotics and judicial reform in Afghanistan. "I think everybody recognizes that with the Taliban receiving funding from narcotics, much more so than in the past, that there has to be a coordinated effort."
While poppy production is falling in north and central Afghanistan, where security is stronger, that decline is expected to be overwhelmed by a surge in production in the southern province of Helmand, the most violent region in the country and the scene of heavy fighting this year.
Helmand is expected to account for more than 50 percent of Afghanistan's poppy crop for the first time, meaning the province by itself would be the world's largest opium-producing region.
"The amount of production in Helmand has undone successes in other parts of the country," Neumann said. "What you see is that where you have a reasonable level of peace and a little bit of government, you can start to make progress against the poppy. Where you are in the middle of the insurgency, it's much harder."
The United States would like to see Afghanistan undertake ground-based spraying of poppy fields with herbicides. The new U.S. ambassador here, William Wood, oversaw U.S.-backed coca field eradication efforts in Colombia as ambassador there.
But some Afghan Cabinet members have expressed reservations about the impact on legitimate crops or livestock. President Hamid Karzai at first agreed to allow spraying last year before changing his mind, according to the Western official familiar with the drug trade.
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Afghan Lower House Approves Draft Media Law
Wednesday May 23, 11:55 AM
KABUL, May 23 Asia Pulse - The Afghan Lower House of Parliament approved the amended draft media law with the addition of 16 new articles on Tuesday.
The amended draft law was passed after nearly one month of discussions by parliamentarians. ADVERTISEMENT
The appointment of the head and members of the supreme media commission through elections is considered the key amendment in the draft law. Previously, the Minister for Information and Culture was heading the commission.
The law, with its nine chapters and 42 articles, was forwarded to the Lower House a few months back. It was presented for debate before the MPs on April 21.
Muhammad Muhaqiq, head of the cultural affairs commission of the Wolesi Jirga, told journalists the law, having 11 chapters and 53 articles, was approved keeping interests of the state, government and national media in mind. Muhaqqiq informed about the addition of 16 new articles to the law.
He added the law provided the right of defence to the media, individuals and organisations. He said 14 articles added to the amended draft law were relating to the government-owned and private TV channels. The amended draft law also mentions that Afghan nationals can set up private channels.
He said the head of the supreme media commission would be appointed through election. Its members would be ministers for information and culture, telecommunications; representatives of Justice, Haj & Auqaf ministries and the Supreme Court; parliamentarians, journalists associations and civil societies.
Under the new draft law, said Muhaqqiq, director of the national television would be the executive head of the commission constituted for the government-owned Radio Television. The seven-member body will be appointed by the supreme media commission.
(Pajhwok Afghan News)
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Kidnapped Pakistan government workers freed
Wed May 23, 3:06 AM ET
MIRANSHAH, Pakistan (AFP) - Kidnappers Wednesday freed eight Pakistan government workers, including five women, who were seized at gunpoint last week in a lawless tribal region bordering Afghanistan, officials said.
Dozens of armed men ambushed their government vehicle on Saturday near Mir Ali, a town in the North Waziristan district where Pakistani forces have been hunting down Al-Qaeda and Taliban militants.
The workers were dropped off early Wednesday in the marketplace in the northwestern town of Bannu, on the fringe of the tribal belt, said Arbab Arif Rahim, security chief for the Federally Administered Tribal Areas.
"The employees have been released and their release has come about without any preconditions," Rahim told AFP.
He said details of who kidnapped them, how they were brought to Bannu and where they had been held were not immediately known.
The hostages had been travelling from the northwestern city of Peshawar, capital of North West Frontier Province, to assess development work undertaken by the government in the troubled region.
There was no immediate word from any of the anti-government militant groups operating in the region, which is plagued by crime and abductions for ransom.
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"Kite Runner" author turns to Afghan women in new book
By Claudia Parsons Tue May 22, 8:44 PM ET
NEW YORK (Reuters) - His novel "The Kite Runner," about the troubled friendship of two Afghan boys, struck a chord with millions of readers, but Khaled Hosseini says he felt part of the Afghan story was left untold -- the women's side.
"I went into this with a bit more of a mission than the first novel," Hosseini said of his new book "A Thousand Splendid Suns," which was published on Tuesday.
"The Kite Runner" was published in 2003, a time of high public interest in Afghanistan because of the U.S. invasion after the September 11 attacks. It spent more than two years on the bestseller lists with more than 4 million copies now in print.
"That first novel was entirely populated by men, it was really a story about men and the friendship between men," Hosseini told Reuters in an interview. "The whole gender issue I had pretty much steered clear of in that novel."
In 2003 Hosseini, a physician who lives in the United States, returned to his native Afghanistan for the first time since 1976 on a two-week trip to see for himself how the country was faring after the toppling of the Taliban.
"Many of the things I saw and experienced in Kabul came back to me when I started writing this novel," Hosseini said.
The new book is the story of two women, Laila and Mariam, thrown together by forced marriages to the same man. Initially suspicious of each other, they forge a deep friendship that is told against the backdrop of three decades of Afghan history.
"In some senses they're inspired by the collective voice of the women that I met in Afghanistan back in 2003," he said.
"The issue of women is a very sensitive one in Afghanistan," he said. "(But) the things I talk about have been well documented, particularly when it comes to the fighting between the warlords and what the Taliban did to the people."
Publishers Weekly magazine gave "A Thousand Splendid Suns" a coveted starred review, describing it as "powerful (and) harrowing."
"Hosseini gives a forceful but nuanced portrait of a patriarchal despotism where women are agonizingly dependent on fathers, husbands and especially sons, the bearing of male children being their sole path to social status," it said.
A movie of "The Kite Runner" is due for release later this year and Hosseini said discussions were in the early stages for the second book to be made into a film as well.
"In many ways Afghanistan still is very much a mysterious and enigmatic place to a lot of people," Hosseini said, adding that while his books were by no means history books, he was happy if they spark curiosity about Afghanistan in readers.
"I've always found that fiction has been a great way for me to learn about things," he said. "I learned more about the great depression from 'The Grapes of Wrath' than I did from reading any history book."
Hosseini said the Iraq war had distracted attention from Afghanistan, which was still struggling with huge problems such as illiteracy, healthcare, poor infrastructure and corruption.
"I landed in Kabul on 2003 on the very day that the war started in Iraq," he said.
"You could all but hear the collective groan break out in Kabul because there was a fear that when that war happened it would funnel attention and money and funds and assistance from Afghanistan into this potentially open-ended, big war.
"And to a large extent that's what's happened. Afghanistan is not a front page news story any more. Iraq is."
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Troops awarded medals for bravery in Afghanistan
Wed May 23, 2007 5:36PM BST
LONDON (Reuters) - A British soldier has been awarded the country's second-highest military medal, the Conspicuous Gallantry Cross, for leading an Afghan army unit in two days of heavy fighting.
Lieutenant Tim Illingworth of the Rifles, then a junior officer, took charge of the unit after its Afghan commander was killed in Garmsir, in the south of Helmand province.
"His inspirational leadership in trying to recover the body of his fallen comrade, an act of high cultural significance, and his bravery over a period of several days was deemed to be well beyond the call of duty," the Ministry of Defence said.
He was among more than 70 British troops who received medals on Wednesday for bravery in Afghanistan last year.
Three Royal Air Force Chinook pilots were awarded the Distinguished Flying Cross, and a nursing officer at the field hospital at the British desert base Camp Bastion was given the Associate Royal Red Cross Medal.
A full list of the awards is posted on the MoD website at www.mod.uk.
Britain sent thousands of troops to Helmand province in southern Afghanistan about a year ago with an expanding NATO peacekeeping force. They have seen heavy combat.
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House expands visas for Iraqi, Afghan translators
Tue May 22, 5:55 PM ET
WASHINGTON (Reuters) - The U.S. House of Representatives on Tuesday passed legislation granting special immigration visas to hundreds of Iraqi and Afghan translators whose lives are endangered because they helped U.S. forces.
By a vote of 412-8, the House passed the legislation that was also embraced by the Senate earlier this year.
The measure, which President George W. Bush is expected to sign into law, would grant up to 500 special visas for the foreign translators and interpreters who have helped in the U.S. war effort.
"These translators and interpreters who serve bravely alongside our troops need our immediate assistance. Singled out as collaborators, many are now targets by death squads, militias, and al-Qaeda," said Rep. Howard Berman (news, bio, voting record), a California Democrat.
Democrats have pressed the Bush administration to open the United States to more Iraqi refugees and supporters, but acknowledged this legislation would help only a relatively small number of them.
About 4 million of Iraq's 24 million people are thought to have fled their country because of sectarian violence or have left their homes for safer areas inside Iraq.
Lawmakers have complained that last year, the United States accepted only 202 Iraqis out of its 70,000 refugee slots worldwide, despite the worsening refugee crisis.
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Polish defense minister visits Afghanistan
WARSAW, Poland, May 23 (UPI) -- Poland's defense minister traveled to Kabul Wednesday to see how steering wheels of his military vehicles were lost while being flown to Afghanistan.
Defense Minister Aleksander Szczyglo visited the southern town of Kandahar to meet Polish troops stationed in Afganistan as part of the NATO forces, Polish Radio reported Wednesday.
Szczyglo is investigating losses during air transport of military equipment that was shipped from Poland to Afghanistan via Pakistan.
Polish Hummer vehicles reached their Afghan destinations without steering wheels, first-aid kits and ignition keys.
About 1,300 Polish soldiers are completing combat drills to get ready to patrol southern Afghanistan by early June when they will confront Taliban rebels.
Rebels are expected to increase their activities in the coming summer months when they should get more money from the undergoing opium poppy harvest, the radio said.
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Musharraf backs talks with Taliban
Exclusive: Pakistan's President shrugs off increased militancy in border region
The Globe and Mail SONYA FATAH From Wednesday's Globe and Mail May 23, 2007 at 2:00 AM EDT
ISLAMABAD - Peace in Afghanistan will not come out of the barrel of a gun, Pakistan's besieged President, General Pervez Musharraf, said in a wide-ranging interview in which he suggested that talks with the Taliban and other opposition may be necessary to bring stability to the war-torn country.
“We have to have a multipronged strategy. In Afghanistan it is only the military strategy which is working now,” Gen. Musharraf said in an interview with The Globe and Mail.
“[The] political element is the negotiations between warring factions. Who are the warring factions? Warring factions are the Afghan government and the coalition forces on one side and the militant Taliban and even non-Taliban so some form of negotiations between these two.”
“Maybe, there are groups who want to give up militancy and negotiate so I can't lay down whether you negotiate with the Taliban, but [if] they want to go on fighting, you don't negotiate with them, take a military angle. You negotiate, you develop contacts with people who are not for fighting.”
Taking little responsibility for the growing sense of political instability in Pakistan and increased militancy along the Pakistan-Afghanistan border, a defiant Gen. Musharraf insisted that Pakistan was the only country that had a military, political, developmental and administrative strategy to defeating extremism.
“I would tell everyone: Come and learn from us. We are sitting here knowing exactly what is happening on ground,” he said. “You sitting in the West don't know anything. So, don't teach me, come and learn from us. Come and understand the environment. And then decide on what has to be done and what doesn't have to be done. We are doing more than any other country in the world.”
The general also didn't back down from controversial comments made last year comparing the casualties suffered by Canadians and Pakistani military.
“Unfortunately the people in the West think that their lives are more important than our lives they think the gun fodder should be from these countries like Pakistan and developing countries. If their soldiers, one soldier, dies, there is a problem, but 500 of ours have died. And then, yet they are blaming us. Isn't 500 important? And yet Pakistan is blamed for not doing enough.”
Gen. Musharraf's confident assertiveness during the interview is at odds with the mood in Pakistan, where growing protests after his suspension of the nation's top judge and riots in the country's largest city present him with the greatest challenge of his nearly eight-year run as president and army chief.
Critics have assailed Pakistan over a controversial 2006 peace deal with pro-Taliban militants aimed at ending five years of violent unrest in the semi-autonomous North Waziristan region bordering Afghanistan. The accords brokered between the government and the pro-Taliban political party, the Jamiat-e-Ulema-e-Islam, after which the government released militants, were seen by many as a setback for the government and a victory for extremist forces.
But Gen. Musharraf defended the approach of reaching out to local power brokers as a way of breaking the cycle of violence. “These are the tribal maliks [leaders] and elders. Locate them. Identify them, deal with them, wean them away. That's the strategy that should have been adopted a long time back, but we left the field open for the Taliban, so every one is now suppressed and they are scared. Either they have joined them or they are lying low.”
Although Pakistan's intelligence agency has been accused of helping establish the Taliban movement, Gen. Musharraf insists his country played no role, although he acknowledges it gave the extremists legitimacy by being among the only countries to establish diplomatic relations when Taliban mullahs took over the government of Afghanistan.
“I know for sure – 200 per cent – that they were not a creation of Pakistan. They were a creation of circumstances in Afghanistan,” he said. “They [Afghan warlords] were ravaging and killing and butchering each other. That gave rise to this.”
While admitting he was concerned about the growing domestic opposition to his government, Gen. Musharraf emphasized the achievements made by his administration during the interview.
The Pakistani economy has been growing at a rate of 7 per cent in recent years and foreign investment has risen substantially under his rule as the government's deregulation, liberalization and privatization strategy has seen an inflow of investment and capital funds into the economy.
Nonetheless, politically the General is still struggling to contain the fallout from his March 9 firing of the Chief Justice of the Supreme Court of Pakistan, recent violence in Karachi and an on-going stand-off between the government and hard-line Islamists holed up in an Islamabad mosque.
A rolling series of protests and strikes have been led primarily by legal bodies and supported by opposition parties. The Islamist coalition that allowed the General to stay in uniform, has become very vocal in its opposition to him.
Despite that, the President won't concede mishandling the issue and sees himself as a victim of a larger conspiracy. “The issue is that the judicial crisis has been politicized. It has been publicized by the opposition. And all these people who have converted this judicial case into a political issue. Now when you politicize this. It is an election year also. All political parties want to show their turf.”
Special to The Globe and Mail
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G-8 pressing Pakistan, Afghanistan to cooperate against Taliban as NATO toll mounts
The Associated Press Wednesday, May 23, 2007
ISLAMABAD, Pakistan: Pakistan and Afghanistan will attend a meeting of world powers in Europe next week, Germany's foreign minister said Wednesday, indicating the neighbors' icy relations were helping the Taliban inflict mounting losses on NATO troops and Afghan civilians.
Pakistani and Afghan foreign ministers Khursheed Kasuri and Rangeen Dadfar Spanta will join their counterparts from the Group of Eight leading industrialized nations near Berlin on May 30, Germany's Frank-Walter Steinmeier said.
Steinmeier, whose government holds the rotating presidency of both the G-8 and the European Union, announced the meeting after talks with Kasuri in Islamabad, a day after winning the consent of the Afghan side in Kabul.
The invitation to the G-8 meeting reflects international unease at the Taliban's resurgence over the past year, the continued weakness of Afghan President Hamid Karzai's government and Pakistan's failure to stop militants from finding refuge and recruits on its side of the border.
Steinmeier said Afghanistan could not be stabilized without a "regional approach" and said improving Pakistani-Afghan relations was an "important key."
"Looking particularly at the areas near the shared border, both neighbors — and I stress both — must make serious and common efforts to intensify mutual contacts and cooperation," Steinmeier said at a news conference with Kasuri.
Asked about militants crossing from Pakistan to Afghanistan, Steinmeier said there had to be common effort "to protect the Afghan population, but also of course to protect all the foreigners present, whether they are part of the military presence or the international reconstruction teams."
Kasuri said he was looking forward to the G-8 meeting in Potsdam.
"Pakistan is equally interested that there be no movement across the border. This is in our own interests," he said.
Steinmeier on Tuesday visited Kunduz, the city in the relatively peaceful north of Afghanistan where a weekend suicide attack killed three German soldiers serving in the NATO-led security force. A Finnish soldier died in a bomb blast in another northern province on Wednesday.
The Kunduz attack has triggered calls from some German opposition lawmakers for the country to rethink its strategy in the region, including withdrawing its roughly 3,000 soldiers serving there — something the government has rejected.
"It is not easy to explain again and again to the German public that, despite such setbacks ... the reconstruction of the country must go on," Steinmeier said. "The people in Afghanistan have earned that, and I believe it is a contribution to the stabilization of the whole region."
Karzai and Pakistani President Gen. Pervez Musharraf have repeatedly accused each other of responsibility for the resurgence of the Taliban.
Musharraf insists Pakistan is doing all it can to counter Islamic militants sheltering among sympathetic tribes in its remote border region and that Afghanistan is not matching its effort to seal the frontier with thousands of troops.
However, Karzai has accused Pakistan of using the militants to undermine his government and that putting soldiers on the border does nothing to shut down militant bases inside Pakistan.
In recent weeks, Pakistani and Afghan troops have also fought several skirmishes along a contested portion of the border, killing several soldiers and civilians on the Afghan side.
Steinmeier also said he had used his meeting with Kasuri to express Europe's "concern" about Musharraf's removal of Pakistan's chief justice, which has lead to deadly political violence and cast doubt on the general's pledge to restore democracy.
Steinmeier said he was "very happy" that Kasuri had reassured him that parliamentary elections expected later this year will be free and fair and that international observers will be allowed to monitor the voting.
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85 killed in Afghan IED blasts in May - NATO
By Jim Loney
KABUL, May 23 (Reuters) - With foreign forces under fire for the deaths of Afghan civilians, NATO said on Wednesday that 85 people, including 40 civilians, have been killed so far this month by the Taliban's improvised explosive devices (IEDs).
In roughly the same period, aerial strikes by U.S.-led coalition forces have killed at least 90 civilians, Afghan officials and witnesses say.
The deaths have sparked angry protests against foreign troops and calls for President Hamid Karzai's resignation.
The NATO-led International Security Assistance Force said 70 of the 85 killed so far this month by IEDs, including suicide attacks and roadside bombs, were Afghans.
Another 250 people, including 118 civilians, were wounded.
"The extremists continue to kill the people of Afghanistan," ISAF Lieutenant-Colonel Angela Billings said.
Accurate civilian casualty figures are difficult to come by in Afghanistan. Battles between NATO and coalition forces and Taliban fighters happen in remote locations.
The Afghanistan Independent Human Rights Commission said on Tuesday about 136 civilians had been reported killed to date this year.
At least 50 were killed in aerial bombardment in the Shindand district of western Herat province during the last two days of April, according to Afghan officials. U.S. officials said more than 130 Taliban fighters had been killed in the area but reported no civilian casualties.
The International Committee of the Red Cross said "dozens of civilians" had been killed in the bombing and 173 homes badly damaged, leaving nearly 2,000 people homeless.
In a battle in the Sangin Valley of Helmand province, at least 40 civilians died in fighting on May 8, witnesses said.
Billings said she had no figures on civilian deaths caused by Western forces.
The U.S.-led coalition and NATO together have nearly 50,000 troops stationed in Afghanistan.
Criticism over mounting civilian casualties has led Germany to call for a review of the way Western troops operate in Afghanistan. NATO has said it is looking at its tactics.
The issue of civilian deaths is a delicate one for Karzai's U.S.-backed government. Afghans complain of a lack of development despite billions of dollars spent in Afghanistan since the United States ousted the Taliban government in 2001.
After a meeting this week, U.S. President George W. Bush and NATO Secretary-General Jaap de Hoop Scheffer said they would try to reduce civilian deaths but blamed the Taliban for using civilians as human shields.
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Pakistan faces the Taleban's tentacles
By Barbara Plett BBC News Bannu, northern Pakistan Tuesday, 22 May 2007
In a remote Pakistani town, a singer lives in fear.
Zaher Uddin used to perform at weddings, now he sings only in the privacy of his home. The white walls are draped with festive garlands, tools of his newly defunct trade. Music has been banned by local religious militants, or Taleban.
Mr Uddin talks about the hardship of his job, but he won't talk about the Taleban, he's too afraid.
Vigilante vice squads have recently begun to patrol the streets of Surai Norang, located near the city of Bannu in north-western Pakistan.
Wheat field rendezvous
Armed Pakistani tribesmen had been imposing their own hardline version of Islam in the lawless border region near Afghanistan. But their influence is spreading, and the state seems powerless to stop it.
One music shop owner in Surai Norang has learned that the hard way. He switched to selling Islamic cassettes after his store was bombed. In the two months since he's made less than $4.
"The police are not helping or protecting us," he says. "In fact they called us and told us not to sell these music cassettes, otherwise we'd be in trouble."
The members of this radical religious movement are Pakistani, but they're inspired by the Afghan Taleban. They support its leader Mullah Omar, rather than Pakistan's President Pervez Musharraf.
A Taleban commander, Qari Sarfraz, agrees to meet us.
He and his men drive across a riverbed in their pick-up trucks for a rendezvous in a wheat field. They have Kalashnikov rifles thrown over their shoulders, and pistols stuck into holsters slung across their chests.
The commander tells us he's the head of a mobile unit sent from the tribal region of North Waziristan to the Bannu area. He says the Taleban have a duty to enforce Islamic law wherever they can because the government has failed to do so.
He supports those who've tried to assassinate the president in the past - they were "doing the right thing", he says.
"We don't have the power or capacity to remove this government. We cannot bring down the Musharraf regime, so we don't intend to do that. What we are trying to do is that in our area, if we see something un-Islamic happening, we try to stop it, because we are responsible for our own area."
The Pakistani Taleban are also blamed for a recent wave of suicide bombings. Qari Sarfraz says his men haven't been involved.
"We believe that you are justified in carrying out suicide bombings against the enemies of Islam," he says. "But if you do it the way they are doing it in Pakistan, killing their own people and civilians... I don't know. Those who are doing it, sponsoring it, they have to answer Allah and justify it."
After extending an invitation to lunch the men clamber into their trucks and speed away.
All this seems a world away from the capital city, Islamabad. It's a liberal, secular place by Pakistani standards: men and women mingle freely, they're able to buy the latest Western music, DVDs and fashion.
But in the centre of town the radical Red Mosque, or Lal Masjid, has also been challenging the government to enforce Islamic law.
Its religious students have occupied a public building to put pressure on the authorities. And they've launched their own self-styled anti vice campaign: the women abducting alleged prostitutes, the men torching a pile of videos and DVDs in the middle of town.
Sign of weakness
Among their targets was the tourism minister, denounced by the mosque for an innocent hug while paragliding in France. It was reacting to newspaper pictures of Nilofar Bakhtiar embracing her elderly instructor.
But Mrs Bakhtiar says the government can't fight fire with fire.
"Now [the Taleban] are showing up in the capital and they're trying to show their strength," she says. "So we want to negotiate and convince them they're wrong; if we just start shooting tomorrow, then we will also be Taleban, and we don't want to do that."
The government's failure to enforce its authority in the heart of the capital has infuriated Pakistan's Westernised elite. Some accuse it of cultivating the Lal Masjid crisis to distract attention from growing domestic problems.
But others say the Lal Masjid shows just how far Talebanisation has reached. They say the government's refusal to act is a sign of weakness, and in the vacuum, Talebanisation grows stronger.
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‘Filipino-looking’ found dead in Afghanistan
By Francis Earl A. Cueto, Reporter Manila Times, Philippines
Department of Foreign Affairs officials said on Wednesday that they are investigating reports that a Filipino was found dead in Afghanistan.
Foreign Affairs Undersecretary Esteban Conejos ordered the Philippine Embassy in Islamabad, Pakistan, to immediately investigate the reported death of a Filipino and submit its findings as soon as possible.
Reports quoted Afghan police and intelligence agents as stating that the body of a foreign woman, believed to be a Filipino, had been found in a well in Afghanistan.
The body was found four days after the woman went missing.
She was dumped near the town of Gardez, about 100 kilometers southeast of Kabul, an Afghan provincial police chief said.
According to the wire report from the AFP, the woman, said to have been working for a foreign company, went missing while she was traveling to the capital, Abdul Rahman Sarjang, police chief of Afghanistan’s Paktia province.
Two men were detained for suspected links to the killing, he said.
“She was kidnapped four days ago and we found her body today,” Sarjang said. The Afghan police could not give any details about the woman, including her age or where she had been working.
An Afghan intelligence official in the province said on condition of anonymity that his department had been told the woman was a Philippine national working for an Indian company.
Afghan police could not say if the woman’s murder was linked to the Taliban insurgency in which militants have kidnapped several foreigners and beheaded many of them.
The Taliban movement normally announces when it has taken foreign hostages.
Insurgency-linked violence has increased in Paktia in the past week. In Gardez, the provincial capital, a Taliban suicide attack killed 10 Afghans on Sunday.
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Anti-tetanus, measles drive launched in Takhar
Abdul Matin Safaraz
TALUQAN, May 21 (Pajhwok Afghan News): A week-long anti-tetanus and measles campaign was kicked off in the northern Takhar province on Monday.
According to provincial health officials, 195,000 women and 164,000 children across the province would be administered vaccines during the ongoing drive.
Dr Hafeezullah Safi, senior official of the public health department, told Pajhwok women aging between 15 and 45 years and children from nine months to five years would be vaccinated during the current drive.
The $200,000 expenses were being jointly provided by the United Nations Children Fund (UNICEF) and the Ministry of Public Health, he informed.
Safi said one of the symptoms of tetanus is that a new- born baby stops suckling and cries most of the time. If not cured at early stage, the disease might prove fatal, he warned.
Measles is a disease usually affecting children. Appearance of red spots on the body is the basic symptoms of the disease. Change of colour of the retina and high body temperature were other symptoms of the disease, said the doctor.
He said administering anti-tetanus vaccines to women would help reduce chances of the disease among newborn.
Rabia, resident of the 4th district of Taluqan, who had come to get vaccinated, told Pajhwok her child died of the disease two years back.
"Soon after birth, the child stopped suckling and was crying. He died in a few days," narrated the 32-year-old.
Dr Abdul Hakim Azizi, director of the public health department, said the government did not have the exact number of patients suffering from the disease.
However, he said, 16 per cent women were suffering from tetanus in the province. He said measles was also existed in the province, but it was not at the alarming level.
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