‘Taliban surrounded’ in Kandahar fight

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ARGHANDAB, Afghanistan – Afghan, U.S. and Canadian troops have surrounded a pocket of some 250 Taliban fighters who have commandeered people’s homes in villages just outside Afghanistan’s major southern city, officials said Wednesday.

Hundreds of Afghans — their cars and tractors piled high with personal possessions — were fleeing the battleground about 15 miles north of Kandahar city.

The provincial police chief said the combined forces have killed some 50 Taliban in three days of fighting. Three police and one Afghan soldier have also died, Sayed Agha Saqib said.

“The people are fleeing because the Taliban are taking over civilian homes,” Saqib said. “There have been no airstrikes. We are trying our best to attack those areas where there are no civilians, only Taliban.”

Saqib said 16 suspected Taliban have been arrested during the operation.

The fighters moved into the Arghandab district of Kandahar province this week, about two weeks after the death of a powerful tribal leader, Mullah Naqib, who had kept the Taliban militants out of his region.

“He was a good influence for his tribe. He was supporting the government,” Saqib said. “After he died the Taliban were thinking they would go to Arghandab and cause trouble for Kandahar city. But now they’re surrounded and they’re in big trouble. We are capturing and killing them and I don’t think it will cause any problem for Kandahar.”

Still, hundreds of Afghan villagers were fleeing the area in the middle of harvest season, leaving pomegranate crops at a prime picking time.

Haji Karimullah Khan piled his three children into the front seat of a pickup truck and put three female relatives in the back beside household goods and clothes. He was driving to Kandahar city to stay with relatives.

“The Taliban came into our village and they told us to leave,” Khan said. “We just packed up our necessities and left. Our pomegranate orchard and home we left behind.”

Violence in Afghanistan this year is the deadliest since the 2001 U.S.-led invasion that toppled the Taliban militant movement from power in the country. More than 5,300 people have died this year due to insurgency-related violence, according to an Associated Press count based on figures from Afghan and Western officials.

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Afghan leader: Cut back on airstrikes

KABUL, Afghanistan – Afghan President Hamid Karzai is calling for the U.S. and NATO to cut back on airstrikes in the battle against Taliban and al-Qaida militants, saying too many civilians have been killed.

Karzai said that six years after the U.S.-led invasion the Afghan people “cannot comprehend as to why there is still a need for air power.”

“The United States and the coalition forces are not (killing civilians) deliberately. The United States is here to help the Afghan people,” Karzai told the U.S. news program “60 Minutes” for a story scheduled to air Sunday night.

Asked if he wants the use of airstrikes curtailed, Karzai replies, “Absolutely. Oh, yes, in clear words and I want to repeat that, (there are) alternatives to the use of air force.”

At least 700 civilians have died because of insurgency-related violence this year, and about half of those deaths were caused by U.S. or NATO military action, often because of airstrikes hitting civilian homes, according to an Associated Press tally based on numbers from Afghan and Western officials.

The use of airpower is key to the U.S. and NATO fight against insurgents because of Afghanistan’s mountainous terrain and the sheer size of the country. U.S. and NATO officials say Taliban fighters frequently attack their soldiers from civilian homes that the insurgents have commandeered.

But such deaths incite resentment against U.S. forces and have sparked several anti-U.S. and anti-NATO demonstrations this year. Karzai has pleaded repeatedly with Western forces to do all they can to prevent such deaths, and he broke down in tears during a public speech earlier this year after recounting the deaths of Afghan children from airstrikes.

Lt. Col. David Accetta, a spokesman for the U.S. military, said he was not aware of any formal request by the Afghan government for the U.S. to curtail the use of air power.

Air power “is part of the way that a modern military force conducts operations,” he said. “We take every precaution possible to mitigate the potential for collateral damage and non-combatant casualties.”

Maj. Charles Anthony, a spokesman for NATO’s International Security Assistance Force, said he was also not aware of any request to cut back the use of air assets. He said procedures were in place to “ensure that we absolutely minimize the risk to civilians.”

Violence in Afghanistan this year has been the deadliest since the U.S.-led invasion in 2001. More than 5,200 people have died because of insurgency-related violence, according to the AP count.

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Two NATO soldiers killed in Afghanistan

KABUL (AFP) – Two NATO soldiers were killed and three others wounded in a battle with the Taliban in eastern Afghanistan that also left up to 21 militants dead, the military force and local officials said Friday.

A separate NATO air strike on a Taliban hideout in south-central Uruzgan province also killed 18 militants in the latest insurgency-linked violence to hit the nation, local officials said.

The troops were killed in eastern Kunar province late Thursday when their joint Afghan army and ISAF patrol was ambushed with small-arms fire and rocket-propelled grenades, the force said.

The patrol fought back and called in air support, a statement from the NATO-led International Security Assistance Force said.

“Two service members were killed and three others were wounded during a firefight with insurgent forces,” the statement said, adding that the injured were in stable condition after being evacuated for medical treatment.

NATO does not release the nationalities of its casualties, leaving that task to their home countries, but most of the international soldiers deployed in Kunar province are American troopers.

The deaths bring the number of international soldiers killed in Afghanistan this year to 188 as the 37-nation ISAF and a separate US-led coalition battle an increasingly bloody insurgency waged by Taliban militants.

Australia confirmed one of its troops was killed by small arms fire while on patrol on Thursday in Uruzgan province.

Australia has some 900 troops serving in Afghanistan, the bulk of which have been deployed to Uruzgan to assist a Dutch-led reconstruction operation.

The deaths came as the US led calls this week for NATO allies to contribute more combat troops and aircraft to help fight the insurgency, as troop casualties undermined support for the mission at home.

The calls were made as NATO defence ministers met and debated the reluctance of some nations to deploy troops to southern Afghanistan, the former stronghold of the Taliban regime and now the focus of insurgent attacks.

There are around 12,000 US-led coalition forces in Afghanistan fighting the insurgency alongside around 40,000 NATO-led forces and about the same number of Afghan soldiers.

ISAF said it had recovered the body of one militant from Thursday’s attack but the mountainous region made it difficult to confirm if more were killed.

Provincial governor Shalizay Didar said 21 militants had died.

But a Taliban spokesman, Zabihullah Mujahid, said only three militants were killed, while claiming responsibility for the attack on behalf of the group.

Meanwhile, NATO forces bombed the Taliban hideout in Uruzgan overnight, acting on a tip off, the district governor told AFP.

“Eighteen Taliban were killed in the aerial bombing of NATO and their bodies are still there,” governor Fazel Bary told AFP.

In another incident, two roadside bombs struck vehicles in southern Kandahar province on Friday, killing at least one civilian and injuring seven others, the provincial police chief told AFP.

Sayed Aqa Saqib said the militants had planted six bombs along the road in the Panjwayi district. Police discovered and defused four, but two others later exploded, he said.

International military forces helped to remove the extremist Taliban from government in late 2001 and are fighting the insurgency led by the hardline group and joined by other radical factions.

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US imposes new sanctions on Iran

The US has stepped up its sanctions on Iran for “supporting terrorists” and pursuing nuclear activities. The new measures target the finances of Iran’s Islamic Revolution Guards Corps and three state-owned banks.

US Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice said the moves were part of “a comprehensive policy to confront the threatening behaviour of the Iranians”.

The sanctions were backed by Britain, but a top Iranian MP dismissed them as a “strategic mistake”.

The US declared the Revolutionary Guards a “proliferator of weapons of mass destruction”, a reference to ballistic missiles they are allegedly developing, while their elite overseas operations arm, the Quds Force, was singled out as a “supporter of terrorism”.

The US has repeatedly accused Iran of destabilising Iraq and Afghanistan, blaming the Revolutionary Guards for supplying and training insurgents.

‘Proliferator’

Ms Rice said: “Unfortunately the Iranian government continues to spurn our offer of open negotiations, instead threatening peace and security by pursuing nuclear technologies that can lead to a nuclear weapon, building dangerous ballistic missiles, supporting Shia militants in Iraq and terrorists in Iraq, Afghanistan, Lebanon and the Palestinian territories, and denying the existence of a fellow member of the United Nations, threatening to wipe Israel off the map.”

Under Executive Order 13382, US authorities will be able to freeze the assets of, and prohibit any US citizen or organisation from doing business with the Revolutionary Guards.

Iran’s ministry of defence, which controls the country’s defence industry, three Iranian banks, and several companies owned by the Guards will also be designated.

“These actions will help to protect the international financial system from the illicit activities of the Iranian government,” Ms Rice said.

Analysts said it was not clear how big an effect the sanctions would have, since the Guards probably had very limited assets in the US. However, they said the move might discourage other countries from dealing with the Iranian institutions.

The Guards’ Quds Force was singled out after being accused by US officials of supplying powerful roadside bombs and rocket-propelled grenades to Shia militants in Iraq.

Thought to have 15,000 troops, it is responsible for conducting covert missions overseas and for forging relationships with other Shia groups.

“The Quds Force controls the policy for Iraq,” the top US military commander in Iraq, Gen David Petraeus, said earlier this month. “There should be no confusion about that.”

Dominant force

Iranian MP Kazem Jalali, spokesman for parliament’s foreign affairs and security commission, said the US was interfering in internal Iranian affairs.

“This will make the wall of distrust between Iran and the United States higher every day and will close down dialogue,” he told the AFP news agency.

The Revolutionary Guards force was set up shortly after the 1979 Iranian revolution to defend the country’s Islamic system, and to provide a counterweight to the regular armed forces.

It has since become the dominant military force in Iran, with past members including President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad and a number of his cabinet ministers.

It is estimated to have 125,000 active members, and boasts its own ground forces, navy and air force, and controls Iran’s strategic weapons.

It also controls the paramilitary Basij Resistance Force and the powerful bonyads, or charitable foundations, which run a considerable part of the Iranian economy.

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Bush asks for $46 billion more for wars

WASHINGTON – President Bush asked Congress for $46 billion more to bankroll wars in Iraq and Afghanistan and said he wants the money approved by Christmas. The fighting in Iraq, in its fifth year, already has cost more than $455 billion.

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