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NATO says Afghan expansion on track despite attacks

Written by: Staff

BRUSSELS, June 6 (Reuters) NATO defence ministers who meet in Brussels on Thursday will give final blessing to alliance plans to nearly double peacekeeping troops in Afghanistan despite mounting violence there, officials said.

The 26-nation body is due to raise troop levels to some 17,000 from 9,000 and replace existing US-led operations in the perilous south by late-July, giving the United States the scope to wind down its forces.

''It comes as no great surprise that NATO forces will be challenged in the south. We are creating the conditions for stability there and a number of people don't want that,'' NATO's Assistant Secretary General for Defence Policy and Planning John Colston told a news briefing today.

''Defence ministers are confident they have the right plan, the right forces properly equipped and the right rules of engagement to undertake the job,'' he said, adding there were no plans to review existing military planning for the expansion.

Recent months have marked the bloodiest period in an insurgency that has been raging since US-backed forces ousted a Taliban government in 2001.

Some 400 people were killed last month alone, as the Taliban stepped up attacks in the south in an apparent attempt to weaken the resolve of NATO governments. Three US soldiers were wounded today in an attack by a teenage suicide bomber on their convoy in southeast Afghanistan.

Britain, Canada and the Netherlands are due to lead the deployment to the south, which includes Afghanistan's main opium-growing region and most dangerous territories.

The NATO expansion will take the numbers of foreign soldiers in Afghanistan to around 30,500 by July and August, the highest level since the US-led forces overthrew the Taliban.

NATO is already present in the capital Kabul, the west and north of the country and expects to extend its coverage to the east by the end of the year, putting it in charge of all peacekeeping operations.

However diplomats said there was still no agreement on when exactly that could happen, with many allies wanting to see how the expanded mission in the south went.

Reuters DKS GC1945

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