UN seeks Afghan backing from key ministers

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UNITED NATIONS, Sep 23 (Reuters) UN Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon sought increased backing today for efforts to impose peace and order in Afghanistan from representatives of key countries involved there.

Afghan President Hamid Karzai and foreign ministers and UN envoys from 17 other nations gathered at UN headquarters in the latest of a series of meetings before Tuesday's opening of the annual General Assembly gathering of world leaders.

Since US-backed forces overthrew Afghanistan's Taliban rulers in late 2001, Karzai's government has struggled to keep control, faced with a resurgent Taliban, independent-minded warlords and rising drug production.

About 50,000 foreign troops are deployed there, including a NATO-led International Security Assistance Force, or ISAF, and separately led US forces.

A UN mission supports and advises the Afghan authorities on economic and political development, justice reform, humanitarian aid and anti-drug programs along side NATO and a separate US military presense..

In an opening address, Ban said security concerns -- a reference to continued fighting in the south -- prevented him from spreading the UN presence more widely in the country. He urged the meeting to discuss those concerns.

''In order to carry out such efforts, we need a reasonable level of freedom of movement and security,'' he said acording to a text of his speech made available by UN officials.

Underscoring the security problems, two Italian soldiers were reported missing while on patrol in western Afghanistan, Italian authorities said today.

HIGHER PROFILE ''If I expect one thing to come out of this meeting, it is that they reinforce the commitment to Afghanistan,'' UN Afghanistan envoy Tom Koenigs said earlier of the session attended by the country's neighbors and key NATO states.

''We need more troops, we need more money and we need a sustainable commitment in Afghanistan,'' he said on Friday.

Diplomats, however, said today's meeting was not expected to result in specific pledges.

Western countries have been pressing for the United Nations to boost its profile in Afghanistan after Koenigs quits at the end of this year, with a high-level mission chief who could act as a ''partner'' for Karzai.

Koenigs said the Taliban insurgency could not be defeated by military means alone.

''There must be a comprehensive strategy which comprises civilian and military action, so we come to a political offensive against the insurgency,'' he said.

An Afghan presidential spokesman said last week Kabul was ready for peace talks with the Taliban but would not accept preconditions demanded by the Islamist rebels, such as the withdrawal of all foreign troops.

The Afghan meeting is the latest of several Ban has convened to underscore the central UN role. Ministers discussed Darfur on Friday and Iraq yesterday. A meeting of West Asia mediators was scheduled for later today and a major conference on climate change will be held tomorrow.

Reuters AB DB2200

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