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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Turkish planes bomb Kurdish rebels

(CNN) — Turkish warplanes and helicopter gunships have been bombing Kurdish separatist positions in Turkey along the Iraqi-Turkish frontier amid continuing diplomatic efforts to avert a major cross-border incursion by Turkish military forces.

CNN Turk, citing Turkish government and military sources, reported the activity and said it had been taking place since Sunday.

The Dogan News Agency also told CNN that aerial strikes had been going on for days, with several F-16 warplanes loaded with bombs taking off from an air base in the southeastern city of Diyarbakir.

Anadolu news agency reported that aircraft-backed “counter-terrorism operations” were “under way” in southeastern Turkey.

Public pressure is mounting in Turkey for the government to authorise a major strike against Kurdistan Workers’ Party (PKK) fighters accused of mounting attacks against Turkish forces and civilians from bases across the border in Iraq’s semi-autonomous Kurdish region.

Thousands of mourners took to the streets Tuesday for the funerals of 12 soldiers killed in an ambush Sunday.

Meanwhile a Denmark-based Kurdish TV station, Roj TV, broadcast footage it claimed showed eight troops captured by the PKK in the same attack. The film showed eight men standing against a PKK flag with mountains in the background.

The Web site of PKK’s military wing quoted a commander who blamed Erdogan himself for the deaths of the soldiers and “the POWs that we now have.”

Turkey’s military has confirmed that eight soldiers are missing but not reports that they were taken hostage.

Turkey has repeatedly called on Iraq and the U.S. to crackdown on PKK operations within Iraqi territory. The PKK is considered a terrorist organization by the U.S., the European Union and Turkey.

But with tens of thousands of troops in place along Iraq’s northern frontier, Turkish Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan told reporters during a visit to London on Tuesday that cross-border raids targeting the PKK could be launched “at any time” — and warned Turkey could not “wait forever” for a diplomatic solution to the crisis.

Iraqi Prime Minister Nuri al-Maliki reiterated an Iraqi pledge to shut down PKK offices in the north of the country and said Iraq would not allow its territory to be used as a “launch pad” for attacks on Turkey.

“The government will do its best in order to limit the PKK and its terrorist activities that are a threat to Iraq just like it is a threat to Turkey,” al-Maliki said, following a visit to Baghdad on Tuesday by Turkish Foreign Minister Ali Babacan.

In a statement issued on Tuesday, the Presidency of the Kurdistan Region of Iraq called on the PKK to abandon its armed struggle.

“The current problems should be solved through political and diplomatic methods,” the statement urged.

“It is necessary to stop using other methods, which are useless, and we demand that the PKK remain committed to the cease fire and not resort to armed operations.”

But Babacan, speaking in Baghdad after meetings with Iraqi leaders, said: “We need more than words. We said that preventing the PKK from using Iraqi soil, an end to logistical support and all PKK activities inside Iraq and closing of its camps are needed. We also said its leaders need to be arrested and extradited to Turkey.”

Babacan also rejected reports of a unilateral PKK cease-fire, saying that a cease-fire was something that could only be agreed “between two countries or two militaries, and not with a terrorist organization.”

The Iraqi central government and Iraq’s Kurdish Regional Government are concerned that cross-border action would violate Iraq’s territorial integrity and plunge a region that has escaped the worst of the four-year-old Iraq war into conflict.

The U.S. fears Turkish strikes against the PKK could destabilize the American-backed government in Baghdad and jeopardize supply lines for its 160,000-plus troops in Iraq. Washington has launched a major diplomatic push to persuade Iraq to move against the PKK and to keep Turkey — a NATO ally — from launching an attack.

Earlier this week, U.S. Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice, in a joint statement with British Foreign Secretary David Miliband, called for a conference to be held in Istanbul, Turkey, next month to discuss diplomatic solutions to the crisis.

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