Taliban battered ahead of NATO talks on Afghanistan
KABUL, June 7 (Reuters) US-led forces have killed 22 Taliban fighters in a series of raids, days before a meeting of NATO defence ministers to finalise a near-doubling of the alliance's peacekeeping force in Afghanistan.
The raids, conducted last weekend, are the latest in the bloodiest phase yet of a Taliban insurgency that has raged since US-backed forced overthrew the Islamist government in 2001. Some 400 people, mostly militants, were killed in May alone.
''The Afghan National Army and police and the coalition are initiating the vast majority of engagements. The initiative is with us -- not with the Taliban,'' Colonel Tom Collins, a US military spokesman, told a news conference in Kabul today.
However, guerrillas have stepped up attacks in the south in an apparent attempt to weaken the resolve of NATO governments before a handover to peacekeepers from the US-led coalition.
A suicide bomber was killed today when his car blew up 30 metres (yards) short of a compound used by Turkish engineers building a road in Ghazni, a province south of Kabul, a senior provincial police official, Abdul Wakil Kamiyab, said.
Western diplomats say that in some insurgency-ridden areas there have been cases of Afghan irregular forces protecting villagers from Taliban intimidation because the coalition and Afghan security forces are unable to do so.
Afghanistan and the United States are pressing Pakistan to do more to halt Taliban infiltration across the long, porous border.
Mark Laity, a NATO spokesman in Kabul, said the situation was not getting worse, just more complex.
''I think the situation is more difficult and more complicated than it was because of the upsurge in attacks,''Mark Laity, a NATO spokesman in Afghanistan, told the same news conference.
Afghanistan is the top operational priority for NATO, and defence ministers from the 26-nation alliance will finalise plans for its troop expansion from 9,000 to 17,000 during a two-day meeting that opens in Brussels tomorrow.
NATO expects to have 6,000 troops on the ground in the south when it takes control at the end of July, replacing 3,000 coalition troops stationed in a region encompassing the provinces of Helmand, Kandahar, Uruzgan and Zabul.
A US military statement issued late yesterday said 13 guerrillas were killed in a clash in Uruzgan, while two coalition soldiers received non-life-threatening wounds.
In neighbouring Helmand, five militants were killed in an operation by coalition forces, and four more insurgents were killed in Zabul and Paktika provinces, it said. There was no immediate comment from the Taliban about the raids.
Yesterday, in attacks in the east of the country, two coalition soldiers were killed in a roadside bomb blast, while a teenage Taliban suicide car bomber died ramming his taxi into a coalition patrol, wounding three soldiers.
REUTERS SHB BST1732