By CHRIS BRUMMITT, Associated Press Writer
KABUL, Afghanistan - U.S.-led coalition and Afghan security forces killed about 70 suspected militants in Afghanistan, where violence is running at its highest level since the ouster of the Taliban regime six years ago, authorities said Saturday.
The surge in militant attacks comes despite the presence of more than 50,000 foreign troops and 110,000 Afghan police and military officers, as well as a multimillion dollar reconstruction effort to rebuild the shattered nation.
Late Friday, Afghan security forces backed by U.S.-led troops raided compounds in three villages in the remote Pitigal Valley border region, where the coalition said intelligence showed that top militant leaders take refuge as they travel between Pakistan and Afghanistan.
Afghanistan has accused Pakistan of failing to do enough to prevent the movement of militants and weapons across the frontier. Pakistan — which before 2001 had close ties with the Taliban — denies the charge, saying it has deployed tens of thousands of troops.
The troops killed more than 20 insurgents and detained 11 others in the raids, which were just 3 miles from the border. They discovered a bomb-making factory and seized weapons and communication gear, the statement said. One coalition solider was wounded in the raids, it said.
Meanwhile, a bomb attached to a bicycle in a commercial district of the northern city of Mazar-e-Sharif wounded nine people, two seriously, said police spokesman Sher Jan Durani.
In the central province of Ghazni, where the Taliban last week released 19 South Koreans they had held hostage for six weeks, Afghan police attacked a group of Taliban planning to strike security forces, killing 18 and arresting six others, said provincial police Gen. Ali Shah Ahmadai.
"It was a successful operation," he said.
A coalition statement said the raid resulted in the seizure of mortar and artillery rounds, numerous hand grenades, rocket-propelled grenades and other ammunition, it said. It gave no more details.
The Taliban abducted 23 South Koreans in Ghazni six weeks ago. They killed two male hostages, released two women last month and freed the final 19 last week after holding unprecedented negotiations with the South Korean government that critics said risked emboldening the insurgents.
In the Musa Qala district in southern Helmand province, a combined police and coalition patrol came under attack on Friday from mortars, rocket-propelled grenades and small-arms fire, the coalition said in a statement. In the fight that ensued, almost two dozen insurgents were killed.
No Afghan or coalition soldiers, or civilians, were killed, the statement said.
Also in Musa Qala, Afghan forces Saturday called in coalition airstrikes after coming under attack, the coalition said. The strikes on the "known enemy positions" killed seven insurgents, the statement said.
Militants have been running parts of Musa Qala since a peace deal last year between local elders and Afghan government officials, supported by British troops in the province. The deal effectively turned over Musa Qala town and surrounding areas to Taliban control.
It was not possible to independently verify any of the death tolls because travel to the areas is extremely dangerous. Taliban commanders were not available for comment.
The Taliban ruled most of Afghanistan from the mid-1990s until 2001, imposing an extreme version of Islam and harboring al-Qaida leaders and thousands of other Muslim militants from around the world.
They were ousted by a U.S.-led coalition following the Sept. 11, 2001, attacks in the United States, but are now leading an increasingly bloody campaign against the country's Western-backed government.
More than 4,200 people — most of them insurgents — have been killed so far this year, according to an Associated Press count.
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Indignant Afghanistan slams Prophet Mohammad sketch
By Sayed Salahuddin
KABUL, Sept 1 (Reuters) - Afghanistan on Saturday condemned the printing of a sketch of Islam's Prophet Mohammad with the body of a dog in a Swedish newspaper, calling it hostile towards the Muslim world.
The sketch has also drawn condemnation from neighbouring Pakistan, which said it was blasphemous. Muslims believe images of the Prophet are forbidden and consider dogs to be impure.
"Our Holy Prophet's cartoon in a Swedish paper has provoked all Afghans," wrote The Kabul Times, publishing a statement by religious scholars, imams and the Ministry of Islamic Guidance.
"The sold-out enemies of Islam draw the cartoon of the respected Prophet of Islam once more. This has disturbed the Islamic world and aroused the indignation of all Muslims," the statement said.
It demanded those responsible be handed over to a court for prosecution and punishment.
While stressing the peaceful relationship of Muslims and Christians living in Sweden, Swedish Prime Minister Fredrik Reinfeldt said it was not for him as a political leader to interfere with the decision by Nerikes Allehanda, a local newspaper in central Sweden, to publish the sketch.
"In line with our freedom of speech, our democracy and our way of doing things, others make this kind of (editorial) decisions," Reinfeldt said in a radio interview.
Cartoons of the Prophet Mohammad published in Denmark, and later reprinted in European newspapers, sparked widespread anger and deadly protests in several Muslim countries in early 2006.
In Afghanistan, 10 protesters were killed during clashes with government forces over the issue, which coincided with rising anger among many Afghans against some Western countries for perceived religious insensitivity.
The U.S. military last week expressed regret for a publicity campaign that offended many Afghans, after troops dropped free footballs for soccer-mad Afghan children in southeast Afghanistan marked with flags of various countries.
The balls depicted the Saudi Arabian flag, which carries the Islamic declaration of faith and the names of Allah and Prophet Mohammad. The idea of kicking them is considered offensive by Muslims. (Additional reporting by Niklas Pollard in Stockholm)
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Health of ex-hostages concerns families
By JAE-SOON CHANG Associated Press / Saturday, September 1, 2007
SEOUL, South Korea - Family members of 19 former hostages said Saturday they were worried that their loved ones would be further traumatized by public anger when they come home after six weeks of captivity in Afghanistan.
Public criticism of the hostages has been intense in South Korea, where many blame them for bringing about their hardship because they went to Afghanistan despite government warnings that the country was unsafe.
Critics also say their trip sullied the country's international reputation by forcing their government to negotiate directly with the Taliban — a move widely seen in South Korea as a violation of international principles regarding contact with terrorists.
Cha Seong-min, who has represented family members since the crisis began, said he was concerned about the kind of welcome the group would receive.
"Those returning home suffered for 40 days," he said. "But they could suffer more because they are likely to be hit by stones thrown from inside."
He added that he hopes to prevent the hostages from seeing the harsh messages that have been posted on Internet bulletin boards, which could worsen their trauma.
In their first media interviews Friday, the hostages apologized for causing trouble and gave detailed accounts of a six-week ordeal that included death threats and a lack of food.
The 19 hostages were freed in stages earlier this week under a deal between Taliban insurgents and South Korea's government. They left Afghanistan later Friday and arrived in Dubai on their way home. They were due in South Korea early Sunday morning.
Two female hostages were freed earlier last month, while two male hostages were killed in the initial stages of the crisis.
The hostage crisis began on July 19, when the group from a suburban Seoul church was abducted by Taliban insurgents at gunpoint while on their way to do volunteer aid work in the southern city of Kandahar.
The Taliban killed two of the men, one the church pastor, because, they said, their demand for the release of imprisoned fighters was not met.
The two female hostages were let go in a gesture of goodwill, after direct talks were launched with the South Korean government to resolve the crisis.
Cha said relatives planned to visit a hospital later Saturday where the hostages were scheduled to be admitted upon their return, to seek advice on how best to care for their loved ones.
Other relatives declined to speak to the media, saying they agreed to do so only through Cha.
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South Koreans turn anger at hostages
By JAE-SOON CHANG Associated Press Fri Aug 31, 9:06 PM ET
SEOUL, South Korea - South Korea's relief at the release of 19 countrymen held hostage by the Taliban gave way Friday to anger at the victims themselves, members of a Christian church who are being criticized for ignoring warnings against travel to Afghanistan.
Critics said the group's actions forced their government into negotiations with the Islamic militants that damaged the nation's international reputation.
A day after the last hostages were let go, some of the church workers apologized for the trouble caused by their captivity, and a few collapsed when told the militants had slain two male colleagues. One said she secretly kept a diary on the lining of her pants.
With the crisis over, South Koreans turned their focus to what went wrong, who is to blame and what lessons can be drawn from the six-week ordeal. Public anger toward the hostages had been expressed in one form or another from the beginning, and it was rising on Friday.
Scathing comments, written with the cloak of anonymity, flooded Internet message boards. Newspapers published critical editorials.
Most noticeable was the feeling the hostages themselves and the church that sent them to Afghanistan were to blame because they did not heed repeated government warnings to stay away from the volatile Central Asian country. One advisory cited an intelligence report that insurgents were targeting Koreans.
"They were told not to go," said Kim Young-soo, 42, a travel agency employee in Seoul. "They shouldn't have gone there in the first place."
The apparent ignoring of the warning levied a high price on the government, critics argued, forcing it to deal directly with the Taliban in violation of the international principle of not negotiating with terrorists. Seoul is also alleged to have made a secret ransom payment to the insurgent group, although the government denied it.
The U.S., a South Korean ally, welcomed the hostages' release, but it also alluded to the talks with the Taliban.
Asked Thursday if meeting with the militants set a dangerous precedent, State Department spokesman Tom Casey said: "I'd simply reiterate that the long-standing U.S. policy is ... not to make concessions to terrorists."
The hostage crisis has hurt the pride of many South Koreans, who have sought international recognition for their homeland's rise from the rubble of the 1950-53 Korean War to become one of the world's richest nations.
"Of course, the country has a duty to protect its people, but I'm worried that the status of South Korea will slip a lot in the international community," said Kim Kwang-ho, 32, an employee at a consulting firm.
Local media also raised concerns about the ramifications of any ransom being paid. A senior Afghan official close to the negotiations alleged Friday the South Koreans had paid money to win their release.
"Speculation has been rife over a ransom payment. And we are concerned that other kidnapping incidents targeting our nationals might occur," the newspaper Dong-a Ilbo said in an editorial.
Officials have hinted at the possibility of seeking compensation from the former hostages for expenses incurred by the government in winning their release — at least airfare and medical fees — an unprecedented move seen as reflecting public anger over the crisis.
Still, there were some calls for sympathy.
"Two of them have already died in the crisis. They are also victims," said Kim Kwang-il, an activist with an anti-war group that has argued Seoul's dispatch of some 200 soldiers to Afghanistan caused the hostage crisis.
The Taliban freed the hostages after South Korea's government repeated a pledge to withdraw those troops before year's end.
The two male hostages were slain soon after the Taliban seized 23 South Koreans on July 19. The militants freed two female captives last week, and the remaining 19 hostages this week.
Yonhap news agency reported that some of the former captives fell to the ground in shock when they were told that the two members of their group had been slain. Television showed the former hostages tearfully reuniting and hugging at a hotel in the Afghan capital.
It was too early to tell if emerging accounts of the hostages' ordeal and profuse apologies could cause more widespread sympathy.
"I can't sleep due to concerns that we caused so much trouble," Yoo Kyung-sik, 55, one of the hostages, said in an interview shown Friday evening on South Korean television.
He said the captives had been separated into groups of three or four and were repeatedly moved, mostly by motorbike or on foot.
Suh Myung-hwa, another freed hostage, also apologized.
"We caused so much anxiety to the people and our government was hit hard," the 29-year-old said in a televised interview.
Suh showed reporters a pair of white pants on the inside of which she had written detailed records about when the kidnappers moved her, the times they had meals, the kinds of Korean food she longed to eat and other details.
"All I could think about was staying alive," she said. "I didn't feel any pain under captivity, I guess because I was in a panic the whole time. But now that the tension is gone my body aches all over."
As another condition for winning the hostages' release, the government promised that it will stop Christian missionary activity in Afghanistan, and Korean media raised questions about what they called "rash" evangelical activity in a Muslim nation.
The suburban Seoul church that sent the 23 volunteers to Afghanistan and the hostages' relatives have said the group was working on humanitarian projects and not evangelizing.
But their trip has been widely seen by their countrymen as being related to mission work in a country of which many South Koreans have an unclear understanding.
"I really can't understand they tried to do missionary work on the streets of an Arab nation," Kim, the travel agency worker, said, confusing the ethnic makeup of Afghanistan, which is largely Pashtun, with that of many Middle Eastern countries.
Referring to the government's move to seek reimbursement for its expenses, the liberal newspaper Hankyoreh said, "The Protestant churches should thoroughly reflect (on their behavior) with regard to why such demands have been raised."
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Korean Church Ignored Warning on Missionaries in Afghanistan
The Chosun Ilbo, Editorial, Aug 31, 2007
The Saemmul Church ignored a Korean Foreign Ministry warning earlier this year and sent more missionaries into the lion’s den in Afghanistan without informing their families of the dispatch. And since 23 members of the church were abducted by Taliban militants in July, the church has been busy dressing up their missionary activities as volunteer work rather than reviewing its reckless missionary activities.
On Feb. 5, the Foreign Ministry wrote to the Korean Foundation for World Aid asking it to stop members from traveling to Afghanistan, saying that the Islamic militants were known to be plotting abductions of Koreans as a way to win the release of Taliban prisoners. However, the Saemmul Church ignored the warning and kept taking applications for short-term missionary activities in the war-ravaged country until April 1.
Twenty applicants studied Afghan languages once or twice a week for three months and armed themselves with medical and educational volunteer skills to aid their missionary activities. However, the church failed to prepare the volunteers for any possible abduction or other dangers. The young Korean Christians traveled at night using a rented bus, making them sitting ducks for kidnappers.
After the abduction, the church concentrated on playing down its responsibility, asking the press to describe the activities of the captives as “volunteer work” and trying to keep religious terms like “church” and “reverend” from appearing in reports. Yet all the time the church’s leading pastor Park Eun-jo continued making provocative remarks during service. In a sermon on Aug. 12, he suggested the abduction of the church members might be “a revelation of God” and the blood of the two hostages killed by Taliban kidnappers was “not spilled in vain” but would “bear religious fruit some day,” according to a Protestant online newspaper.
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Carter assails Bush for abandoning Afghanistan
Lalit K. Jha
OTTAWA, Aug. 30, 2007 (Pajhwok Afghan News): Former US president Jimmy Carter has criticised George W. Bush for the way he has handled Afghanistan, resulting in resurgence of Taliban militants and record poppy cultivation in the Central Asian country.
The prevailing situation in Afghanistan is one of the proofs of mistakes that America has made in the last few years," said Carter, who was US president when Russians invaded Afghanistan. He was addressing a presidential campaign meeting in Americus, Georgia, on Tuesday.
Sharing the stage with Democratic presidential hopeful John Edwards at the Georgia Southwestern State University, Carter said instead of facing head on the Taliban and other terrorists with full force, the Bush administration abandoned Afghanistan and moved troop and money to Iraq. This, he said, was a terrible mistake.
"I fully supported the US invasion of Afghanistan, expecting the government to concentrate there and to remove the Taliban from control of the country and to establish a real democracy in Afghanistan that all the world could have been looking at with pride, Carter remarked.
"Instead, as you know, we abandoned Afghanistan and moved our troops and our emphasis and our money and everything else over into Iraq, he said.
The result was there for all to see, he observed. Since then, except for some small areas right around Kabul, Taliban have come back, he claimed, citing opium production as the major source of revenue for the insurgents.
"They (the Taliban) can't get money like they used to from Saudi Arabia and other places or wherever they get their money (from). They get their money from selling opium made out of poppies. And you're right, 90 something-percent -- I think 93 percent of all the opium in the world is now produced in Afghanistan because we abandoned the country. And that's one of the serious problems, Carter maintained.
John Edward, in his speech, also expressed concern over the resurgence of Taliban fighters and the increase in poppy cultivation. "It had been squelched to a large extent, but now it's popping back up and strengthening over time, he said while referring to a recent UN report.
Observing that President Hamid Karzai needed all support to stabilise the country and take it on the path of peace and development, Edward said the other NATO allies present in the war-battered country were not doing enough.
"Unfortunately, from my perspective, the other NATO countries have not met their responsibilities in Afghanistan, which puts more responsibility on America, he believed.
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Liberals to focus on end to Afghan mission, Dion says
CanWest News Service; Ottawa Citizen , Friday, August 31, 2007
ST. JOHN'S, N.L. -- The Liberals will use their first opposition day motion when Parliament resumes to try to bring the controversy over Canada's combat mission in Afghanistan to a head, Liberal Leader Stephane Dion said Thursday.
Dion told a news conference the motion will ask the government to give formal notice to NATO that the combat mission involving more than 2,000 Canadian troops be ended as scheduled in February 2009.
The Liberals have been calling on the government to do this since last winter and Dion said they are fed up with Prime Minister Stephen Harper's "vague" pronouncements in which he has said he would seek a consensus from Parliament before deciding on the future of the mission.
Dion could be certain of support from the Bloc Quebecois, whose leader, Gilles Duceppe, has said his party would vote non-confidence in the government if a possible throne speech opening a new session of Parliament does not promise the February 2009 end to the mission.
Dion called on New Democratic Party Leader Jack Layton for support "for once." The NDP voted against a similar motion earlier this year on grounds they want an immediate withdrawal of troops.
Dion said he would not make the motion a confidence vote which could defeat the government, although Harper could declare it a confidence test.
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Achakzai for unity among Afghans
The Frontier Post, Friday, August 31, 2007
KABUL (PAN): Chief of the Pakhtunkhwa Milli Awami Party Mahmood Achakzai has said the unity of Afghans and the reconstruction of Afghanistan is the foremost responsibility of each Afghan. He was addressing the concluding session of the three-day international seminar organised in connection with the 100th birth anniversary of nationalist leader Abdul Samad Khan Achakzai on Thursday.
In his speech, Mahmood Khan Achakzai highlighted the previous 30 years of war and civil strife and the plight of the people of Afghanistan. He said it was the prime responsibility of each and every Afghan to work for unity, reconstruction, progress and prosperity of this war-battered country.
Afghans are one from Amo to Indus and they had their own country. This country was not given as charity, but had been built with the sacrifices of the forefathers of Afghans, said the leader. Referring to conspiracies by some vested interests, Achakzai said Afghans should tell the world they were not terrorists and the world should not compel them to become terrorists.
Preaching unity of Afghans, Achakzai said: "We don't want the break-up of Pakistan to unite Afghans." Rather, he said, they wanted unity of Afghans everywhere. Abdul Samad Khan was the first nationalist leader who raised voice for the unity of Pakhtuns.
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Sacked Defence Ministry employees stage protest
KABUL, Aug 29 (Pajhwok Afghan News): Around 300 former Defence Ministry employees Wednesday staged a peaceful protest, asking the government to pay them outstanding salaries.
The Defence Ministry, when approached for comments, slammed the protestors as irresponsible men and rejected their demand for alternative jobs and clearance of arrears.
The demonstrators marched from the Eidgah Mosque to the UNAMA office, closing the road near Zanbaq square of this heavily-populated capital for four hours.
Abdul Latif, one of the protestors, lamented the governments apathy towards their calls for the payment of dues. He joined the ministry in 1993 and served it until 2002.
Another protester, Abdullah said the promise of work and assistance held out to him under the Disarmament, Demobilization and Reintegration (DDR) had not been kept. He warned of continued protest if they were not paid their dues.
But Gen. Zahir Azimi, spokesman of the Defence Ministry, insisted those fired as part of the DDR drive had been paid pension and the other benefits. "They have no legal documents to prove their claims."
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