Germany's Merkel on first visit to Afghanistan

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KABUL, Nov 3 (Reuters) German Chancellor Angela Merkel made her first visit to Afghanistan today, and is expected to meet Afghan President Hamid Karzai and visit some of the 3,000 German troops stationed in the country.

Germany's parliament voted last month to renew the deployment of its troops, who are mostly based in relatively peaceful Afghan north, for another year, defying public opinion which is strongly against the mission.

The mandate is controversial in Germany, which has only gradually expanded its role in overseas military missions since World War Two.

The deaths of 26 German soldiers serving under NATO's command in Afghanistan in recent years, have further eroded public support and a newspaper showed only 29 per cent of Germans backed the extension of the mission.

But NATO allies, engaged in heavy fighting to contain a Taliban insurgency in the south and east of the country, would like to see Germany allow its troops to do more and operate outside north of the country.

Berlin and some other alliance nations restrict where and how their troops may be deployed in Afghanistan and bar them from engaging in military operations. German troops, NATO commanders say, are even forbidden to patrol at night.

A German embassy spokeswoman in Kabul confirmed Merkel had arrived in the Afghan capital, but declined to give further details of her trip.

Afghan media said she was expected to meet Karzai in Kabul and travel Mazar-i-Sharif, the main base for German troops in the north.

NATO troops have been stationed in Afghanistan in the wake of the overthrow of Taliban's government in 2001.

The Taliban have regrouped in the past two years in their traditional power base of the south and east and are engaged in daily clashes against the Afghan government and foreign troops led by NATO and the US military.

REUTERS PD DS1250

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