Tue, Aug 22, 2006 - Page 5 News List

Nearly 90 die in clashes in Afghanistan

DEADLY WEEKEND Continued fighting underscored the difficult task that NATO faces in its efforts to rebuild the country and win the `hearts and minds' of the people

AFP , KABUL

British Lieutenant General David Richards, head of NATO's international security force in Afghanistan, right, laughs as he listens to a soldier during a meeting of Afghan governors and chiefs of police in Kabul on Sunday.

PHOTO: AP

Deadly weekend clashes in southern Afghanistan have highlighted the scale of the task facing NATO as it tackles the dual challenge of establishing security and promoting reconstruction to break a resilient Taliban insurgency.

Nearly 90 people were killed in a series of attacks in the deadliest weekend since NATO's International Security Assistance Force (ISAF) took over command of the south from a US-led coalition on July 31.

In one attack overnight on Saturday, more than 70 rebels were killed by Afghan and NATO forces after they tried to storm a district headquarters in the southern province of Kandahar. Five Afghan police or soldiers also died.

On Sunday, a British soldier was killed in a gunfight in neighboring Helmand Province, becoming the 10th ISAF soldier to die in hostile action since the takeover.

Other clashes claimed the lives of four US coalition soldiers in attacks on Saturday in the eastern province of Kunar and southern Uruzgan.

ISAF took over saying it would push reconstruction in the neglected area in a "hearts and minds" campaign intended to undermine support for the Taliban.

ISAF commander Lieutenant General David Richards told reporters at the time that he hoped the impact of a new emphasis on reconstruction while maintaining military efforts would be visible within three months.

Establishing security is the priority, spokesman Major Toby Jackman said.

"What has been made completely obvious to us ... is that the key requirement in the south is security. And that is what we are going to deliver," he said.

The around 10,000 ISAF troops in the south had come up "against some extremely stiff resistance," he said. "They [the rebels] have got a capability ... but in the overwhelming majority of cases we are defeating insurgents."

This year has seen a dramatic surge in the insurgency, with rebels launching more sophisticated attacks but security forces also inflicting heavy losses in the south.

The violence has increased as extra foreign troops, including British, Canadian and Dutch forces, moved into the south in preparation for the ISAF handover on July 31.

Officials have said the boosted security forces have penetrated areas previously controlled by Taliban and opium lords, prompting a backlash.

Most of the violence at the weekend was sparked by rebel attacks but the US-led coalition said the strikes were not part of a coordinated campaign.

"It is not like they are mounting an offensive that is sweeping through the south," spokesman Major Thomas Collins told reporters.

"There are these very local attacks that give the impression of an offensive, but we don't see any command and control at the upper echelons of the Taliban that suggest there is some kind of campaign to take over certain areas."

A UN spokesman said that the violence had not stalled development across the entire south, with reconstruction a key part of whittling away the insurgency.

"Within every province there are opportunities and there are threats with some districts that are relatively calm and others that are affected by the insurgency," Aleem Siddique said.

"We are confident that we can make a difference in those districts where the security situation allows us to," he said.

The UN was planning to increase its staff in the area with agencies such as UN Habitat, which builds shelters, and UNICEF, which cares for children, very active, he said.

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