Australia urges more NATO forces for Afghanistan

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CANBERRA, Oct 26 (Reuters) Australia promised to keep troops in Afghanistan on Friday after a second Australian soldier in a month was killed in action, but urged NATO countries to send more forces to Afghanistan's troubled south.

''It's not going to alter our commitment,'' Prime Minister John Howard said today.

Australia has about 1,000 troops in Afghanistan, working alongside Dutch troops in Uruzgan province, including special forces units who conduct long-range raids on Taliban strongholds in the country's south.

Taliban insurgents have intensified their attacks over the past 20 months, the bloodiest period since US-led troops overthrew the Taliban government in Kabul in late 2001.

Australia's Foreign minister Alexander Downer said European NATO countries needed to send more troops to Afghanistan, and to lift restrictions on their activities.

''We would like to see more European contributors contributing in the south where we have a particularly difficult environment,'' Downer told reporters in Adelaide.

''At the moment in the south, you have the Australians, the Canadians -- who have lost a large number of soldiers -- the Americans, the British, the Dutch of course,'' he said.

''But many of the European NATO countries have their troops in the north, which is not free of Taliban activity of course but it is a good deal quieter and a less threatening environment.

''We would like to see some of the restrictions that particularly European parliaments have placed on their troops lifted ... so that the European NATO countries that aren't making a big contribution in the south could make a more active contribution in the south.'' Germany has lost 26 military personnel in Afghanistan, while Spain has lost 23. The U.S. has lost 451 while Canada has lost 71, according to the latest casualty figures.

The United States has also urged European NATO countries to send more troops, trainers and equipment to Afghanistan, and to lift restrictions on what activities they can do.

In the latest incident, an Australian special forces soldier based in Uruzgan was shot and killed fighting Taliban insurgents.

His death follows the death on October 8 of another Australian soldier, killed by a roadside bomb in Uruzgan.

They are the first Australians killed in action in Afghanistan, although a third Australian soldier died in 2002 when his vehicle hit an old landmine from an earlier conflict.

Australia, a close US ally, was one of the first nations to commit troops in late 2001 to the US-led war to oust the Taliban and al Qaeda militants from Afghanistan. It also has about 1,500 troops in and around Iraq.

The deaths came during campaigning for Australia's national elections on November 24. The centre-left opposition Labor Party has promised to withdraw frontline troops from Iraq, but both sides of politics support the troop deployments to Afghanistan.

Howard made a private visit to the special forces base in Perth on Friday to offer his condolences for the tragedy.

Labor's leader Kevin Rudd also visited the barracks to express his condolences and support for the military role in Afghanistan.

REUTERS ARB RN1312

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