Germany to keep troops in stable Afghan areas

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BERLIN, Sep 13 (Reuters) Germany, under pressure to send troops to Afghanistan's troubled southern regions, said today it had no plans to change its Afghan peacekeeping mandate that confines its soldiers to the more stable north.

''We will maintain the predominance of our military presence in the north, and regarding the specific tasks, we will focus on training the Afghan army,'' German Foreign Minister Frank-Walter Steinmeier told reporters after meeting NATO Secretary-General Jaap de Hoop Scheffer.

The United States and other NATO members have been urging Germany to abandon the restrictions on deploying German soldiers to help fight Taliban guerrillas, who have enjoyed a resurgence over the last year.

Scheffer denied that NATO was putting any pressure on Germany to deploy troops in the southern heartlands of the Taliban insurgency though he acknowledged that NATO commanders would prefer not to have limitations on deploying soldiers.

''The commanders and the NATO secretary-general always say the fewer restrictions the better,'' he told reporters.

Steinmeier said Germany would continue to help out in emergency situations in southern Afghanistan as well as with civilian aid and reconstruction work. Berlin also plans to continue surveillance flights over southern Afghanistan.

PARLIAMENT DEBATE The German parliament will debate a renewal of Germany's Afghan mandate later in the fall. Although it is expected to renew most parts of the mandate and keep troop numbers steady, a number of lawmakers would like to restrict it further.

NATO wants to accelerate training of Afghan army cadets both to take the strain off its 40,000-strong International Security Assistance Force (ISAF) and as part of a longer-term strategy eventually to pull out of the country.

The alliance hopes a new strategy of embedding trainers directly in Afghan units will boost the effort. Steinmeier made it clear that Berlin backs efforts to boost training activity.

But Germany and a number of other countries are reluctant for their trainers to accompany their charges into the south, where the fighting is toughest.

The Taliban are leading a dogged insurgency four years after being ousted from power. The Afghan army training effort is all the more vital given growing domestic pressure on Canada and the Netherlands to scale back their presence or pull out altogether.

Scheffer also met with German Defence Minister Franz Josef Jung and Chancellor Angela Merkel to discuss the issues of Afghanistan and Kosovo.

Germany has around 3,000 troops in Afghanistan.

Reuters RAR DB2134

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