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May 26, 2008 

HIV risk in war-torn Afghanistan high
May 26, 2008
KABUL (Reuters) - The prevalence of HIV is low in Afghanistan, but the potential risk factors for the spread of the disease remain high, the Public Health Ministry said on Monday.

Taliban vow to fight on in Afghanistan
By Sayed Salahuddin May 26, 2008
KABUL (Reuters) - The Taliban will fight on till the last foreign soldier is driven out of Afghanistan, but their door is always open to talks with other Afghan opposition groups, the Islamist movement said on Monday.

Chertoff urges anti-terror fight in Pakistan

By RAHIM FAIEZ Associated Press / May 26, 2008
BAGRAM, Afghanistan - The U.S. homeland security chief called on Pakistan's new government Monday to strike back against terrorism in its regions bordering Afghanistan or face more attacks of the kind that killed ex-premier Benazir Bhutto.

Hundreds of Afghans protest US Koran shooting
Mon May 26, 6:03 AM ET
MAZAR-I-SHARIF, Afghanistan (AFP) - Hundreds of university and school students demonstrated in Afghanistan Monday in a new protest over a US soldier's shooting of a Koran in Iraq and other alleged affronts to Islam.

British soldier killed in Afghanistan

Associated Press Mon May 26, 5:11 AM ET
KABUL, Afghanistan - Britain's Ministry of Defense says a British soldier was killed in a roadside blast in southern Afghanistan.

An Italian oasis in Afghanistan

By Alastair Leithead BBC News, Sarobi, east of Kabul Monday, 26 May 2008
The mortar bombs and rockets were laid out in a line as evidence for visiting journalists that the 140 Italian soldiers in the small, isolated base up on the hill and out of harm's way are actually winning.

Afghanistan, Chinese company sign multi-billion-dollar copper mine deal
KABUL (Thomson Financial) 25 May 2008 - The Afghan government and a Chinese state company on Sunday signed a multi-billion-dollar deal for the exploration of a copper deposit said to be one of the largest in the world.

EU to Double Afghan Trainers; Italy Mulls Combat Role
By James G. Neuger and Flavia Krause-Jackson
May 26 (Bloomberg) -- European governments sought to bolster the war effort in Afghanistan, with the European Union sending more police trainers and Italy weighing a combat role for the first time.

U.S. urged to target militants in Pakistan
KABUL (Reuters) 26 May 2008 - The United States should target militant bases in Pakistan, an Afghan state-controlled paper said on Monday, reacting to a threat by a Pakistani Taliban leader to carry out attacks in Afghanistan.

British defense secretary urges combined efforts along Pak-Afghan border to combat extremism
ISLAMABAD, May 26 (Xinhua) -- It will require determined efforts on both sides of the Afghanistan and Pakistan border to tackle the challenges to global security presented by violent extremism, the visiting British Defense Secretary Des Browne

Italy plans to cut troops in Afghanistan-minister
BRUSSELS, May 26 (Reuters) - Italy plans to cut up to 300 troops from its 2,400-strong contingent in Afghanistan later this year, Italian Defence Minister Ignazio La Russa said on Monday.

Canadians aim to gain loyalty in Afghan 'Shangri-La'
ARGHANDAB VALLEY, Afghanistan (CTV) 26 May 2008 — So let's take a drive. We come out of the Kandahar Air Field, turn left onto a madly busy highway and head west towards Kandahar City. We've done this many times

Prayers in the Afghan sun
Shiites' revered shrine underscores relative calm of northern region compared to tension of Kabul
The Toronto Star, May 26, 2008 Rosie DiManno  Columnist
MAZAR-I-SHARIF, AFGHANISTAN–The gatekeeper, an ancient man with an Old Testament face, pushes a two-pronged staff among a vast assortment of shoes, rearranging them to his satisfaction.

Flash floods displace 1,200 people in Samangan
KABUL, 26 May 2008 (IRIN) - Flash floods have displaced about 200 families (roughly 1,200 individuals) in the Hazrat Sultan district of Samangan Province in northern Afghanistan. The families urgently need food and shelter

Pakistan: Bin Laden is not here, says Taliban leader
Islamabad, 26 May (AKI) – A top Taliban commander in Pakistan Baitullah Mehsud has rejected reports that al-Qaeda leader, Osama Bin Laden, and other leaders are hiding in his region.

Taliban vow to fight on, offer talks with Afghans
Mon May 26, 2008 -  Sayed Salahuddin
KABUL, May 26 (Reuters) - The Taliban will fight on till the last foreign soldier is driven out of Afghanistan, but their door is always open to talks with other Afghan opposition groups, the Islamist movement said on Monday.

Afghanistan seeks cash to build ‘new Kabul’
By Jon Boone in Kabul The Financial Times (UK) May 25, 2008
Afghanistan will ask the international community next month for a half a billion dollars to begin work on a “new Kabul” that will be more than one and a half times the size of the existing capital.

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HIV risk in war-torn Afghanistan high
May 26, 2008
KABUL (Reuters) - The prevalence of HIV is low in Afghanistan, but the potential risk factors for the spread of the disease remain high, the Public Health Ministry said on Monday.

So far 435 HIV positive cases have been reported in Afghanistan, the ministry said in a statement, but it is estimated there are 2,000-2,500 cases in a population of some 26 million, still a relatively low infection rate.

"But ... war, poverty, illiteracy, massive international and external displacement, the high level of poppy cultivation, drug trafficking and usage, the existence of commercial and unsafe sex, unsafe injection practices and blood transfusion are potential risk factors for its spread," the ministry said.

Afghanistan is a deeply Islamic country and many of those affected with HIV do not want to speak about it and some are not aware they have it.

The World Bank has granted $10 million (5 million pounds) to the ministry for identifying and creating public awareness among those groups most at risk of HIV and AIDS, the government said.

(Reporting by Sayed Salahuddin, editing by Sanjeev Miglani)
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Taliban vow to fight on in Afghanistan
By Sayed Salahuddin May 26, 2008
KABUL (Reuters) - The Taliban will fight on till the last foreign soldier is driven out of Afghanistan, but their door is always open to talks with other Afghan opposition groups, the Islamist movement said on Monday.

The offer comes days after Burhanuddin Rabbani, a former president and mujahideen chief, now opposition leader, said the Taliban had shown a desire for political dialogue and called for serious efforts to establish talks with the Islamist rebels.

The Taliban "will fight till the withdrawal of the last crusading-invader, but the door for talks, understanding and negotiations will always be open for the all the mujahideen," the Taliban said in a statement on its website.

But, the Taliban said, the mujahideen should join the insurgency and help fight to drive out foreign forces.

Rabbani and other former leaders of the mujahideen forces which fought the Soviet occupation in the 1980s, then each other in the 1990s, now dominate the opposition in parliament.

The Taliban have previously said they would also fight on to depose President Hamid Karzai, but there was no mention of the Western-backed Afghan government in Monday's statement.

The Taliban cited "sacrilege" against Islam since U.S. President George W. Bush spoke of a crusade against terrorism in 2001, up until the recent shooting of a Koran by a U.S. soldier in Iraq. All proof of the "crusaders' hostility towards Islam."

TALIBAN CONTACTS
"Now, the Muslims of the world and Afghanistan, and in particular, the leaders of the groups who consider themselves Muslims and mujahideen are under the service of the invaders and crusaders," the Taliban statement said.

The mujahideen, the Taliban said, "may have realized the time has come to begin an armed jihad against the crusading-invaders. This is the only way for rescuing the Islamic nation and dear Afghanistan."

Rabbani, who now leads the opposition block in parliament, said he had established contact with the Taliban several months ago and had received a letter in recent days containing "some encouraging messages" from the Taliban addressed to the alliance of parties he leads.

The Taliban statement did not directly refer to Rabbani's comments.

U.S.-led troops, helped by Afghan mujahideen groups, toppled the Taliban in 2001 after the hardline Islamist movement refused to hand over al Qaeda leaders behind the September 11 attacks on the United States.

But many of the factions that helped topple the Taliban now feel sidelined and some have privately shown dissatisfaction with the presence of foreign troops in Afghanistan.

More than 12,000 people have been killed by violence in Afghanistan in the past two years, the bloodiest period since the overthrow of the Taliban government.

More than 62,000 foreign troops led by NATO and the U.S. military are stationed in Afghanistan. Foreign commanders say the troops will leave the country when Afghan security forces are able to stand on their feet.
(Editing by Valerie Lee)
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Chertoff urges anti-terror fight in Pakistan
By RAHIM FAIEZ Associated Press / May 26, 2008
BAGRAM, Afghanistan - The U.S. homeland security chief called on Pakistan's new government Monday to strike back against terrorism in its regions bordering Afghanistan or face more attacks of the kind that killed ex-premier Benazir Bhutto.

Michael Chertoff's comments come as the Pakistani government is pursuing peace deals with militant groups. The United States and NATO have expressed concern that such deals give extremists space to plan and execute attacks on foreign forces in Afghanistan, where American troops have seen a rise in violence in recent weeks.

But Pakistan's new leaders appear determined to set a different course than the previous government led by allies of U.S.-backed President Pervez Musharraf, which relied heavily on military force to battle extremist fighters.

Militancy in the border areas is a threat to both countries, and Pakistan should "make sure it asserts control and strikes back against terrorism" on its side, Chertoff told journalists after a citizenship ceremony at the U.S. base at Bagram in Afghanistan.

"Otherwise they're going to see more of the kinds of tragedies that we saw with (former Pakistani Prime Minister) Benazir Bhutto, who was assassinated, or some of the bombings we've seen over the last few months in Pakistan as well as Afghanistan," he said.

Pakistan's foreign office spokesman declined to comment on Chertoff's remarks late Monday.

Chertoff said the U.S. has made a lot of progress in Afghanistan since 2001, when American-led forces ousted the Taliban militant movement for hosting al-Qaida chief Osama bin Laden. But the country still requires dedication by U.S. and other allied forces, he said.

Afghanistan has seen a sharp rise in violence in the last year, even as the U.S. and NATO have poured thousands of new troops into the country. The U.S. now has some 33,000 troops in Afghanistan, the most ever.

NATO said this month that attacks in eastern Afghanistan — where U.S. troops primarily operate — have risen sharply in recent weeks. A spokesman said NATO was concerned that the peace deals in Pakistan were allowing militants to increase attacks over the border.

The new Pakistani government, led by Bhutto's party which triumphed over Musharraf allies in February elections, has insisted that it will only negotiate with militants who lay down their arms and not "terrorists."

But militants' adherence to peace deals in Pakistan may not extend across the border.

On Saturday, Baitullah Mehsud, Pakistan's top Taliban leader, said he was sending fighters to battle U.S. troops in Afghanistan even as he seeks peace with the Pakistani government.

Mehsud is based in South Waziristan, part of Pakistan's lawless tribal belt regarded as a haven for Taliban and al-Qaida linked fighters. The previous government accused Mehsud of being behind Bhutto's assassination in a bomb and gun attack in December. But the new government says he is innocent until proven guilty. Mehsud has denied involvement.

In Islamabad, Pakistan's Prime Minister Yousuf Raza Gilani on Monday told a gathering of foreign diplomats that his government was not negotiating with terrorists. He also said foreign forces — a reference to American troops — will not be allowed to operate in Pakistan.

"Pakistan's security forces will remain deployed to meet any threat posed by terrorists, and an effective mechanism will ensure implementation of the agreements reached with tribes," Gilani said, according to his office.

During a visit to Pakistan on Monday, British Defense Secretary Des Browne urged Pakistan and Afghanistan to cooperate in fighting militants. Browne said the threat posed by "violent extremism" cannot be tackled inside Afghanistan alone and requires a committed regional approach.

In Bagram, 44 members of the U.S. military were sworn in as U.S. citizens during a ceremony to mark Memorial Day, a U.S. holiday. President George W. Bush told the new citizens in a video message that the U.S. is a nation of immigrants that has been enriched by generations of people who sought citizenship.

"I feel really great," Diriangen Tellez, a 23-year-old from Nicaragua, said after the ceremony. "I moved to the states when I was 3 and this is something that I have been trying to do for a long time."

Elsewhere, hundreds of Afghans demonstrated Monday in two provinces against a U.S. sniper in Iraq who used a Quran for target practice. Demonstrators tore apart an effigy of Bush and chanted anti-U.S. slogans.

A Lithuanian soldier and two Afghan civilians were shot and killed last week when about 1,000 Afghans gathered in western Afghanistan to protest the Quran incident. Monday's demonstrations in Balkh and Logar provinces involved several hundred people but were not violent.

The U.S. military has said it disciplined the sniper and removed him from Iraq after he was found to have used the Quran for target practice on May 9. Bush apologized to Iraq's prime minister for the incident.

Britain's Ministry of Defense, meanwhile, said a British soldier was killed and two wounded in a roadside explosion in southern Afghanistan on Sunday.
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Hundreds of Afghans protest US Koran shooting
Mon May 26, 6:03 AM ET
MAZAR-I-SHARIF, Afghanistan (AFP) - Hundreds of university and school students demonstrated in Afghanistan Monday in a new protest over a US soldier's shooting of a Koran in Iraq and other alleged affronts to Islam.

About 800 students marched from Balkh university in Mazar-i-Sharif to the main mosque in the city centre chanting slogans against the "enemies of Islam" including the United States and President George W. Bush, an AFP reporter said.

"We strongly condemn the shooting of our holy book by an American soldier in Iraq. He must be hanged for that," said one of the protesters, Ahmad Nasir, a religious student.

The students tore an effigy of Bush to pieces and read out a resolution that demanded the execution of fellow student Parwiz Kambakhsh, a reporter sentenced to death in Balkh in January for alleged blasphemy.

Addressing the crowd, religious cleric Mawlawi Abdul Qahar said Westerners were insulting Islam.

"Muslims have never insulted or dishonored the Torah or the Bible. Why do they insult our book?" he asked.

The US soldier who riddled a copy of the Koran with bullets in Iraq in March was sent home for disciplinary action. Bush and the US military have apologised.

In addition around 200 high school students in Pul-e-Alam, the capital of Logar province south of Kabul, protested against the Koran desecration and chanted death to "enemies of Islam," said the provincial police chief.

"There was a protest by Porak high school students which ended peacefully," Ghulam Mostafa told AFP.

About 2,000 Afghans demonstrated against the incident in Afghanistan's remote central town of Chaghcharan on Thursday.

The protest turned violent and a Lithuanian soldier with NATO's International Security Assistance Force and two Afghan civilians were killed.

Taliban insurgents said in a statement the desecration of the Koran proved "crusaders' fanaticism and enmity towards Muslims".

The statement said US forces had desecrated the Korana at their prisons in Guantanamo Bay and at their Bagram and Kandahar bases in Afghanistan.

"The crusaders committed crimes in Guantanamo, Bagram and Kandahar after the US-led attack on the Islamic system of Afghanistan.

"The Holy Koran was insulted in different places. The firing on the Koran and Bush's announcement of a Crusade shows the Crusaders' prejudice and enmity towards the Islamic system."

Kambakhsh, a 23-year-old Balkh university student and reporter, is appealing against his conviction for blasphemy, which came after he was accused of downloading from the Internet and distributing articles said to question aspects of Islam.

His long-delayed appeal trial was on Sunday again adjourned for a week.

The Balkh demonstrators also referred to Abdul Rahman, an Afghan who was sentenced to death in 2006 for converting to Christianity. He was spirited out of Afghanistan and given asylum in Italy.

And they again condemned Danish cartoons first published two years ago that Muslims worldwide said insulted the Prophet Mohammad. Eleven Afghans were killed in demonstrations against the cartoons in 2006.
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British soldier killed in Afghanistan
Associated Press Mon May 26, 5:11 AM ET
KABUL, Afghanistan - Britain's Ministry of Defense says a British soldier was killed in a roadside blast in southern Afghanistan.

The ministry said the blast occurred Sunday near Sangin in Helmand province, one of Afghanistan's most violent regions.

Elsewhere around the country, Afghans in two cities demonstrated against a U.S. sniper in Iraq who used a Quran, the Muslim holy book, for target practice.

A Lithuanian soldier and two Afghan civilians were shot and killed last week when about 1,000 Afghans gathered in western Afghanistan to protest the Quran incident.

Today's protests involved several hundred people but were not violent.
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An Italian oasis in Afghanistan
By Alastair Leithead BBC News, Sarobi, east of Kabul Monday, 26 May 2008
The mortar bombs and rockets were laid out in a line as evidence for visiting journalists that the 140 Italian soldiers in the small, isolated base up on the hill and out of harm's way are actually winning.

"They were discovered because local people told us where they were hidden," explained Captain Mario Renna. He says this proves the people of Sarobi, east of Kabul, trust their friendly neighbourhood Italians.

They have even been bringing opium poppies in to be burned - but that's perhaps more to do with a zero-tolerance governor cracking down on opium this year.

Forty nations make up Nato's International Security Assistance Force (Isaf) and each has a slightly different approach to fighting the counter-insurgency.

"In my opinion things are going quite well here because our patrols, our men are spending a lot of time on the ground," Captain Renna said.

"Every day they are engaging the local leaders, chatting with them, exchanging views and opinions - they are assessing villages to see what their needs are."

And if success is measured by attacks on international forces, things are indeed going well - only one Italian soldier has been killed in an ambush this year.

Common strategy

We take a ride into town. The engine of the armoured vehicle roars into life, the gunner poking his head out of the top hatch loaded his large calibre machine gun and the convoy rolls out of its hilltop fort and heads down the valley.

It is a common strategy among international forces - drive to the bazaar, go on a foot patrol, chat to people, meet the elders, find out what they want and then give it to them, whether it be a new road, a clinic, a school, or in this case a $200,000 library.

It's a beautiful two-storey building - the carpenter was planning the new bookshelves in a reading room with a wonderful view over Sarobi's lake.

A local government administration building is already in use and the new road makes travel through the district from Kabul to Jalalabad and on to the Pakistan border so much more palatable.

But it was hard to read the faces of the turbaned locals in the market - staring at the Italian troops with their stylishly designed uniforms.

One young shopkeeper spoke perfect English: "I think security is much better when the Italian soldiers come here and do their patrols on the streets of Sarobi," he said.

Others were more sceptical, saying only the local police and governor had been given any development projects and the security was fine in town, but bad everywhere else.

But with wheat prices going through the roof the Italian food aid appears to have won over a lot of people, for now at least.

Icons of development

Next stop was a mobile medical clinic in one of the villages - represented by a little red cross on the large-scale map of the district which meets visitors to the Italian base.

Scattered across it are icons representing development - little taps for wells, sacks of food, small bridges, and a couple which took some explaining, but represented veterinary clinics.

Stomach pain and arthritis were the main complaints at the improvised clinic and pills were liberally distributed while the military officers headed inside for a small shura, or meeting with the elders.

Over kettles of green tea and plates of nuts and biscuits a white bearded man began with gushing thanks and wound up asking if an awful lot more could be done.

It was all noted in a little book with an apologetic "we are doing an awful lot already".

The Italians say that since they slowly started "engaging" with the locals in the winter they have been making a lot of progress.

But local leader Jamil Fedaye said the problem was the short time the soldiers stay here - as soon as trust is built up they leave and new commanders arrive.

Relatively safe

"This is difficult for them because very quickly they change - after five months they go and are replaced by new soldiers. If they come for one year that would be good," he said.

So why is Sarobi perceived as being different to everywhere else and sold as such a success story?

It could be the Italian nature and their engagement with local people, but in reality this area is nothing like Helmand or Kandahar.

There are criminals in Sarobi but the insurgency here is not strong - it is a relatively safe area and what Italian forces are doing is keeping the peace rather than trying to create a stable environment from lawlessness and chaos.
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Afghanistan, Chinese company sign multi-billion-dollar copper mine deal
KABUL (Thomson Financial) 25 May 2008 - The Afghan government and a Chinese state company on Sunday signed a multi-billion-dollar deal for the exploration of a copper deposit said to be one of the largest in the world.

Mines Minster Ibrahim Adel signed the agreement -- the largest foreign investment in Afghanistan -- with representatives of the Metallurgical Group Corporation (MCC), a state-owned metal producer and contractor

'After signing the contract, MCC will start exploring the mine. This was the last step,' ministry spokesman Khoghman Ulumi told Agence France-Presse. He could not say when work on the mine would begin.
Afghanistan in November selected MCC from nine international bidders for a 30-year lease to develop the Aynak mine 30 kilometres (20 miles) east of Kabul.

MCC was expected to invest around three billion dollars to explore and develop the mine, including building a power plant, a village for the workers and railway line to take the mineral out of the country.
The mine exploration is expected to directly create about 2,400 jobs and indirectly open up 6,000 more.

First discovered in 1974, the mine is estimated to contain 11.3 million tonnes of copper.
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EU to Double Afghan Trainers; Italy Mulls Combat Role
By James G. Neuger and Flavia Krause-Jackson
May 26 (Bloomberg) -- European governments sought to bolster the war effort in Afghanistan, with the European Union sending more police trainers and Italy weighing a combat role for the first time.

Responding to criticism from the U.S. and NATO, the EU said it will double the number of police trainers to 400. Italy's new government said it may send some of its 2,300-strong Afghan force to the hard-fought south of the country.

``We are talking about geographic flexibility, not of more men,'' Italian Foreign Minister Franco Frattini told reporters in Brussels today. ``This is what is being asked of us, to realign Italy with the other big countries in NATO and we are starting now to talk about it.''

North Atlantic Treaty Organization leaders have pressed the EU to do more to train Afghanistan's police, with a top general noting last week that the law-enforcement system has been overhauled in only 12 of the country's 364 districts.

While Afghanistan's 79,000 policemen are close to a goal of 82,000, many are ill-trained and underpaid, U.S. Major General Robert Cone, the western commander in charge of training, said last week.
The dispatch of troops to a combat role in southern Afghanistan would reflect the reorientation of Italian foreign policy under Prime Minister Silvio Berlusconi, who returned to power this month after two years in opposition.

Under Romano Prodi, Italy had joined Germany, Spain and France in refusing to deploy troops in the battlefields of eastern and southern Afghanistan, provoking criticism from countries in a frontline role such as the U.S., Netherlands, Canada and Britain.

Italy has mostly confined its soldiers in the comparatively calm western province of Herat. Defense Minister Ignazio La Russa, also in Brussels today, sought to downplay Frattini's comments by saying Italy's ``overall commitment would be downsized'' and that troops would not necessarily be moved.

France stepped up its commitment when President Nicolas Sarkozy used a NATO summit last month to offer an additional 700 troops for eastern Afghanistan to help fill in for 2,200 U.S. Marines redeploying to the south.

NATO now has 47,000 troops in Afghanistan, led by a 19,000- strong U.S. contingent. Another 16,000 Americans are in a separate U.S.-led counterterrorism force.
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U.S. urged to target militants in Pakistan
KABUL (Reuters) 26 May 2008 - The United States should target militant bases in Pakistan, an Afghan state-controlled paper said on Monday, reacting to a threat by a Pakistani Taliban leader to carry out attacks in Afghanistan.

Afghanistan and Pakistan, while both U.S. allies, have had strained relations, with Kabul accusing Islamabad of harboring Taliban and al Qaeda militants and allowing them to direct and carry out attacks from Pakistani soil.

The Hewad newspaper called on Pakistan's government to review its stance on negotiations with the militants and not allow such deals to threaten Afghanistan.

"Similarly, the United States of America which heads now the international campaign against terrorism, needs to focus all its attention on the terrorists' genuine nests," the state-run daily said in an editorial, referring to militant bases in Pakistani tribal areas along the Afghan border.

Faced with a wave of suicide attacks over the past year, Pakistan has begun negotiations with Taliban militants who control much of the mountainous region on its side of the border with Afghanistan and many Pakistani troops have left the area.

Pakistani Taliban leader Baitullah Mehsud has said he would carry on fighting Afghan and foreign forces in Afghanistan whatever the outcome of the peace talks.

Mehsud's comments were clear testimony to the fact that certain circles in Pakistan did not wish to see a secure and stable Afghanistan, the Hewad said, without elaborating further.

NATO, which leads a 50,000-strong force in Afghanistan, said on Sunday the Pakistan peace talks had already led to an increase in insurgent attacks within Afghanistan.

The newspaper said the tribal areas on the Pakistani side of the border were used as training and supply bases for the militants.

Ties between Afghanistan and Pakistan, who have historical border disputes, have seen many ups and downs.

Thousands of Afghan Taliban and several hundred al Qaeda members are thought to have fled to Pakistan when U.S.-led troops overthrew the Taliban government in Afghanistan in 2001.

Some U.S. officials have not ruled out the presence of al Qaeda chief Osama bin Laden and Taliban leaders in Pakistan.

Suspected U.S. strikes have killed several militants in tribal areas of Pakistan in recent years.

Afghanistan is sending a high-level delegation to Pakistan in the coming days to voice concern about the peace deals, an Afghan Defense Ministry spokesman said on Sunday.

Previous peace deals between the Pakistani government and the Taliban all broke down in violence and gave the militants time to regroup, he said.

Afghan forces, backed by more than 60,000 foreign troops, are engaged in daily battles with Taliban militants, mostly in the south and east, the areas closest to the border with Pakistan.
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British defense secretary urges combined efforts along Pak-Afghan border to combat extremism
ISLAMABAD, May 26 (Xinhua) -- It will require determined efforts on both sides of the Afghanistan and Pakistan border to tackle the challenges to global security presented by violent extremism, the visiting British Defense Secretary Des Browne said here on Monday.

Browne made the remarks while holding a series of talks with Pakistan Defense Minister Chaudry Ahmad Muktar, the Chief of the Army Staff General Kayani, Foreign Minister Makhdoom Shah Mahmood Qureshi and the Chairman of the Joint Chief of Staff Committee Major General Tariq Majid.

"Pakistan and Afghanistan share common problems and I am encouraged by the commitment of both countries to work together, with the international community's support, towards tackling them," Browne said.

Browne discussed a range of bilateral issues and received an update on the political and security situation in the tribal areas, the News Network International news agency reported.

"The UK is committed to doubling our development spending in Pakistan to almost 1 billion U.S. dollars over the next three years and are prioritizing good governance, growth and the delivery of basic services," said Browne.

"The people of Afghanistan are starting to seize this opportunity. But the long-term solution to Afghanistan's problems and the threats posed to global security by violent extremism can not be dealt with within Afghanistan's borders alone. These challenges will require a genuine and committed regional approach," he said.

The Pakistani side conveyed to UK Defense delegation that Pakistan was endeavoring to promote peace and stability in Afghanistan because a peaceful and stable Afghanistan was not only in the interest of Pakistan but the whole region as well.

Browne arrived here for talks on the regional security challenges following a three-day visit to Afghanistan where he met with NATO and international partners and members of the Afghan government including Afghan President Hamid Karzai, a British High Commission statement said.
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Italy plans to cut troops in Afghanistan-minister
BRUSSELS, May 26 (Reuters) - Italy plans to cut up to 300 troops from its 2,400-strong contingent in Afghanistan later this year, Italian Defence Minister Ignazio La Russa said on Monday.

"Our intention is to make a decrease in September of between 250 and 300," La Russa told reporters at an EU meeting.

La Russa also said Italy planned to make its contingent better able to react quickly to requests from NATO to operate outside its main base in west Afghanistan, but stressed Rome did not plan to move its troops anywhere else permanently.

"We want to deploy in a few hours -- six hours -- our troops in zones where it is useful for logistical or military reasons," he said, adding that current procedures meant it took 76 hours for Italy to launch a deployment.

"We intend to modify this hurdle without modifying our zone of deployment," he said.

Italian officials have in recent days said Rome wanted to make its deployment in Afghanistan more flexible, prompting speculation it would be ready to help bear the brunt of fighting against Taliban insurgents in the south.
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Canadians aim to gain loyalty in Afghan 'Shangri-La'
ARGHANDAB VALLEY, Afghanistan (CTV) 26 May 2008 — So let's take a drive. We come out of the Kandahar Air Field, turn left onto a madly busy highway and head west towards Kandahar City. We've done this many times, but instead of going into the town centre, we skip a turn and drive north.

I'd forgotten I was here before, because there on the right is Mullah Omar's compound, which I first saw in 2002 when it was little more than a bombed-out ruin. Today it's held by American Special Forces behind high walls and rolls of razor wire.

But this time, we're going even farther, up a long winding hill and as we reach the crest, the landscape suddenly blooms into a green fertile valley. After weeks and weeks of seeing nothing but brown, brown, brown, the view makes you gape.

Mountain runoff has been channelled into canals and spillways that sparkle blue in the sunlight; a little girl is washing her hair; the sound of the rushing water makes you forget where you are. My colleague Murray was right when he described it as an Afghan Shangri-La.

This is the Arghandab, named after the river that runs through the valley. Famous for its pomegranates. Fertile, prosperous and above all, strategic. If the Taliban take this prize, Kandahar City is just over the hill.

That's why the Canadians have set up a new operating base here and why they're working with tribal leaders to build roads and bridges and schools, to dig wells, and put up retaining walls, and widen canals. There's money -- lots of money for development -- and it's fair to say the Canadians are trying to buy loyalty with every dollar they spend, every job they create.

Inside the district centre, there's a shura going on, a meeting between tribal leaders and Canadian soldiers, who are part of a team that plans and approves local projects. First they talk about security, and then they talk about development. It's all very friendly and polite. And things seem to be moving.

"I've seen some changes since I've been here, in small chunks," says Sgt. Ron Leblanc, who's in charge of the Canadian unit. He's an Ojibway from Manitoba, and by nature of his birthright, knows something about cultural sensitivity.

"I have a good understanding of the tribalism here," he tells me, "and how it can impact on what you're trying to achieve."
 
Twenty-five projects have already been approved for the Arghandab, and another 50 have been proposed. Leblanc has a favorite, and it's a good story.

There's a park near the district centre, and every Wednesday thousands of Afghan women spend the day there. But for a long time, there were no doors on the women's washroom, so in order to use the toilets, the women had to hold up a blanket for each other.

When Leblanc heard this, he made some enquiries. "Within a week," he says, "we had a contractor down there installing doors on the washroom. "It was a quick fix, and they're very appreciative."

That was small, whereas the bridge outside the village is big, a $900,000 project funded by Canada that will connect communities during the worst of the Arghandab's winter flooding. And yes, there's a good side and bad side of the river.

The Taliban are on the other side, the bad side, and even before this project was started, community leaders went to see them.

The contractor, Abdul Razak Durrani, picks up the story. Incidentally this is the biggest construction job he's ever undertaken, all of it under the watchful eyes of an Afghan army guard post.

"Community leaders talked to the Taliban," he says, "and they told them this bridge is for the people. It's our bridge." He says there's been no trouble. The machine gun at the guard post might help.

The bridge will service 15,000 families on both sides of the river, and tribal leaders hope it will lead to peace and greater prosperity. All of that Canadian aid money will certainly help, but that will be gone if the Taliban get a strong foothold here.

I ask Haji Ras Mohammed, a prominent member of the shura, if he's afraid of the Taliban. "If I were afraid of them," he says, "I wouldn't be here."

So is progress being made? Are the Canadians really making a difference? In other more hostile areas, the answer seems to be, "No, not a lot." But here, Leblanc thinks they're doing OK.

"If we're lucky," he says they get some intelligence from the locals. Tips on roadside bombs and Taliban hideouts. But he's still doesn't sound all that confident. Is their loyalty only as deep as the Canadians' pockets?

"They're on the fence about who they're going to choose and side with," he says. "My job is to persuade them to be pro-ISAF, and not allow the Taliban in here."

And that's how it works. In theory. You make people believe their lives will be more "desirable" -- in Leblanc's words -- without the Taliban. "That's why I came here."

I also wanted to ask him about corruption, because many believe that's a bigger problem for Afghanistan than the Taliban. Nobody doubts that millions and millions of redevelopment dollars have gone missing.
Even for his little projects, Leblanc says he needs at least three bids, but accepts that corruption is a part of life in Afghanistan, and sometimes you just have to overlook it.

"In order to get things done," he says, "sometimes you have to deal with people who are shady."
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Prayers in the Afghan sun
Shiites' revered shrine underscores relative calm of northern region compared to tension of Kabul
The Toronto Star, May 26, 2008 Rosie DiManno  Columnist
MAZAR-I-SHARIF, AFGHANISTAN–The gatekeeper, an ancient man with an Old Testament face, pushes a two-pronged staff among a vast assortment of shoes, rearranging them to his satisfaction.

He will remember, by means known only to him, what pair belongs to which owner.In stocking feet, we pass under the archway, sun-soaked marble flagstones burning our soles.

The muezzin's call to prayers, amplified by loudspeakers, echoes throughout the sweeping courtyard and into the neighbourhoods beyond. In the multi-domed mosque, flanked by minarets, the worshipful touch their foreheads to the ground in whispered genuflections. At the centre of the complex, the Shrine of Hazrat Ali shimmers in the noonday heat, every inch of surface covered by tessellated mosaic in turquoise, jade and yellow glaze.

Women kiss the tiles as men cup their hands in the supplicant gesture. Inside – beyond the threshold that non-Muslims can't cross – is the venerated burial spot from which this city takes its name: The Tomb of the Exalted.

Hazrat Ali was the cousin and son-in-law of the Prophet Muhammad, the fourth and final orthodox Caliph of Islam.

While there is another shrine in Najaf, Iraq, that makes the same claim, many Shiite Muslims – certainly Afghans – believe this is the sacred site where Hazrat Ali's remains are buried in a glass enclosure, sarcophagus covered in a green shroud. Assassinated in Iraq in 661 A.D., local legend has it that Ali's followers, fearing enemies would take revenge on the body, placed the Caliph's corpse on the back of a white she-camel that wandered through the desert until she fell, exhausted, on this spot.

A succession of shrines were erected here and destroyed over the years, the contemporary building a faithful restoration of the 15th century version – the most beautiful construct in all of Afghanistan, surviving even the past three decades of war and civil unrest.

One of the shrine's custodians warmly greets a visitor to the attached museum, proudly pointing out a giant 600-year-old Qur'an under glass and other relics recovered from this site. On parting, he gives the visitor a silk head scarf. "You are our guest."

Thousands of white pigeons take to the wing overhead, as if on cue. There is an aura of majesty and serenity to the place.

Kabul, and the volatile regions south of the capital, feels long ago and far away, as distant geographically – on the other side of the Hindu Kush – as metaphysically. The north is a different country.

Of course, there is no such thing as tranquility anywhere in Afghanistan, no region totally immune to the violence of the neo-Taliban insurgency.

Just last week, Afghan forces reportedly thwarted a car-bomb attack against German troops at their base just outside Mazar. Germany – with 3,200 troops, part NATO's International Security Assistance Force – is in charge of Regional Command North, encompassing nine provinces, although several other nations operate Provincial Reconstruction Teams within that domain. The Mazar PRT is actually run by the Swedes.

Berlin has adamantly refused to deploy any of its troops to the south, claiming they've already got their hands full up here with a spreading insurgency. But these things are relative and the north, especially around Mazar, feels relatively calm.

Mazar, in Balkh province, was one of the last cities to fall to the Taliban in the mid-1990s and the first major city taken back by the Northern Alliance after the U.S.-led coalition launched bombing sorties in response to the 9/11 attacks. While there was much retaliatory bloodletting in the streets – the mostly Tajik, Uzbek and Turkoman resident population avenging themselves against the detested Pashtun Taliban – the city itself came through that horrible era largely unscathed, its infrastructure intact, industry and commerce humming, its culture a bit more liberal.

In pre-Taliban days, under control of the notorious warlord Gen. Rashid Dostum, Mazar had a reputation as a less culturally rigid environment, where girls were allowed to be educated – though women, then as now, still wear the burqa, white rather than blue. Politically, Dostum has been quite marginalized, his power base – and a faithful militia – curtailed to the area around Shibarghan. The governor of Balkh – one of Afghanistan's richest provinces, sitting on abundant natural resources – is now Dostum's arch-enemy, Atta Mohammad Nur, an ally of Afghan President Hamid Karzai.

There is an esprit in Mazar that doesn't exist in tension-wound Kabul, its broad avenues lined with leafy trees, families picnicking in the park that faces the shrine, ribbon-festooned pony-traps taking visitors around the city. Smiles come more easily. A snake charmer shows off his reptiles and scorpions.

In one girlie pinup-decorated tuk-tuk – the three-wheeled vehicles that compete with taxis for business – a group of young men sing along to Western music on their ghetto blaster. And, in the Mazar version of drag-racing, youngsters stand upright in the open trunks of speeding cars, as if they were charioteers, an alarming sight.

Back at the shrine, a visitor comes to reclaim her boots from a jumble of black footwear. The guardian picks them out immediately. "They're dusty," he admonishes. "You should get them polished."
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Flash floods displace 1,200 people in Samangan
KABUL, 26 May 2008 (IRIN) - Flash floods have displaced about 200 families (roughly 1,200 individuals) in the Hazrat Sultan district of Samangan Province in northern Afghanistan. The families urgently need food and shelter, according to the Afghan Red Crescent Society (ARCS).

"Heavy summer rainfall caused two separate floods in Hazrat Sultan district on Sunday afternoon, which completely destroyed 26 houses, partly damaged more than 100 houses and killed dozens of animals. No human casualties were reported," Mohammad Zahir Hamidi, provincial head of ARCS, told IRIN from Samangan on 26 May.

"We will provide the displaced families with tents and kitchen kits. We asked the World Food Programme [WFP] to send food items," added Hamidi.

WFP said it will send a team from Kabul to assess the needs of the displaced families on 27 May. "After we get the result of the assessment, we will send food items to the affected families," Ebadullah Ebadi, a WFP spokesman, told IRIN in Kabul.

The Afghanistan National Disaster Management Authority (ANDMA) in Kabul said that 190 families had fled their houses to a hill near their village where some stayed overnight. Others were accommodated by nearby villagers or went back to their partly damaged houses after the flood waters receded.

Meanwhile, the ARCS office in Samangan has warned of the possibility of more rain in the area. "We need urgent assistance because the displaced families are so vulnerable now and more floods would cause further damage [and suffering]," Hamidi said.

In February, a national emergency commission – made up of several government bodies and non-governmental organisations (NGOs) – warned that 21 out of the country's 34 provinces, including Samangan, were "vulnerable" to spring floods, which usually start in March and last until May.

A spell of floods and landslides caused by heavy rains killed dozens of people and damaged thousands of homes across Afghanistan in 2007, according to Afghanistan's National Disasters Management Authority (ANDMA).
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Pakistan: Bin Laden is not here, says Taliban leader
Islamabad, 26 May (AKI) – A top Taliban commander in Pakistan Baitullah Mehsud has rejected reports that al-Qaeda leader, Osama Bin Laden, and other leaders are hiding in his region.

"The al-Qaeda leader, Osama Bin Laden, and the Afghan Taliban leader, Mullah Omar, are not in our territory," he said in an interview broadcast by the Arabic satellite television network, Al Jazeera.

The pro-Taliban leader who is based in Pakistan's tribal area of South Waziristan denied hosting the Saudi leader in local villages, as US intelligence officials suspect.

"Both are among the great figures of the Mujahadeen who fight for Allah and all Muslims love them for fighting against the Americans.

"We are proud of them and if they came to us to ask our help, we would be available but they are not here now."

Mehsud also rejected claims by the government in Islamabad that he was responsible for the assassination in December of Pakistan People's Party leader, Benazir Bhutto.

"It wasn't us who killed Bhutto," he said. "If she had attacked us, we would have done it but that didn't happen."

The pro-Taliban leader confirmed that he was helping his Afghan colleagues and that a group of his men were fighting with them against NATO troops in Afghanistan.
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Taliban vow to fight on, offer talks with Afghans
Mon May 26, 2008 -  Sayed Salahuddin
KABUL, May 26 (Reuters) - The Taliban will fight on till the last foreign soldier is driven out of Afghanistan, but their door is always open to talks with other Afghan opposition groups, the Islamist movement said on Monday.

The offer comes days after Burhanuddin Rabbani, a former president and mujahideen chief, now opposition leader, said the Taliban had shown a desire for political dialogue and called for serious efforts to establish talks with the Islamist rebels.

The Taliban "will fight till the withdrawal of the last crusading-invader, but the door for talks, understanding and negotiations will always be open for the all the mujahideen," the Taliban said in a statement on its website.

But, the Taliban said, the mujahideen should join the insurgency and help fight to drive out foreign forces.

Rabbani and other former leaders of the mujahideen forces which fought the Soviet occupation in the 1980s, then each other in the 1990s, now dominate the opposition in parliament.

The Taliban have previously said they would also fight on to depose President Hamid Karzai, but there was no mention of the Western-backed Afghan government in Monday's statement.

The Taliban cited "sacrilege" against Islam since U.S. President George W. Bush spoke of a crusade against terrorism in 2001, up until the recent shooting of a Koran by a U.S. soldier in Iraq. All proof of the "crusaders' hostility towards Islam".

"Now, the Muslims of the world and Afghanistan, and in particular, the leaders of the groups who consider themselves Muslims and mujahideen are under the service of the invaders and crusaders," the Taliban statement said.

The mujahideen, the Taliban said, "may have realised the time has come to begin an armed jihad against the crusading-invaders. This is the only way for rescuing the Islamic nation and dear Afghanistan."

Rabbani, who now leads the opposition block in parliament, said he had established contact with the Taliban several months ago and had received a letter in recent days containing "some encouraging messages" from the Taliban addressed to the alliance of parties he leads.

The Taliban statement did not directly refer to Rabbani's comments.

U.S.-led troops, helped by Afghan mujahideen groups, toppled the Taliban in 2001 after the hardline Islamist movement refused to hand over al Qaeda leaders behind the Sept. 11 attacks on the United States.

But many of the factions that helped topple the Taliban now feel sidelined and some have privately shown dissatisfaction with the presence of foreign troops in Afghanistan.

More than 12,000 people have been killed by violence in Afghanistan in the past two years, the bloodiest period since the overthrow of the Taliban government.

More than 62,000 foreign troops led by NATO and the U.S. military are stationed in Afghanistan. Foreign commanders say the troops will leave the country when Afghan security forces are able to stand on their feet.
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Afghanistan seeks cash to build ‘new Kabul’
By Jon Boone in Kabul The Financial Times (UK) May 25, 2008
Afghanistan will ask the international community next month for a half a billion dollars to begin work on a “new Kabul” that will be more than one and a half times the size of the existing capital.

Under plans drawn up by President Hamid Karzai’s chief economic adviser, a vast area just north of Afghanistan’s chaotic capital will become a modern city for 3m people, complete with an electric tram system and a huge central park with a mountain and artificial lake.

A world-class international airport is also planned to encourage regional companies to have their headquarters in the capital, although Afghanistan’s dire security situation and rampant government corruption have been big deterrents for foreign investors so far.

The call for a new city has raised eyebrows from international donors who say the war-shattered country should not be spending scarce resources on “Kabul-centric” projects. They believe the focus should be on developing national security, agriculture and the country’s feeble economy.

Despite the cool international reaction to the Dehsabz project, large amounts of preliminary work have already been done – a detailed master plan is expected to be ready by the end of the year.

The development will fill a 500 square kilometre triangle of government-owned land flanked on all sides by mountains. The existing city covers an area of 350 sq km.

Rivers will be damned to provide water and electricity while solar and wind plants will help it fulfil its “eco-neutral” aspirations.

Mahmoud Saikal, the chief executive of the Dehsabz City Development Authority, says the project will create jobs and relieve chronic overcrowding in the capital.

Since the fall of the Taliban regime in 2001, Kabul has experienced explosive growth – in one estimate the city’s population has grown from 400,000 to 3.5m in the past six years.

Mr Saikal said steps should have been taken to develop a new urban area seven years ago.

“In every household we have three to four families. Sixty five per cent of all urban development in Kabul is illegal. We have a polluted city with traffic jams, overcrowding and very high unemployment.”

Mr Saikal said the overall cost could be as much as $50bn (€31.7bn, £25.2bn) over the 30-year lifetime of the project, but nearly all that money would be raised by selling plots of land to private developers.
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