Kidnapped Italian soldiers freed in Afghanistan

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KABUL, Sep 24 (Reuters) Two Italian soldiers kidnapped in Afghanistan were freed today during a raid by NATO-led troops, Italian officials said.

The soldiers were wounded during the raid to free them in southwestern Farah province and were taken to hospital, the defence ministry in Rome said.

One of them was in serious condition with gunshot wounds to the head and chest, Italian media reported.

Both men went missing two days ago in neighbouring Herat province.

Sergio De Gregorio, chairman of the defence committee in Italy's Senate, said at least seven of the suspected kidnappers were killed in the raid. NATO in Kabul said all the kidnappers were killed.

An Italian diplomat in Kabul said it was not clear who the abductors were. The police chief for Farah province, Abdul Rahman Sarjang, said he suspected the kidnappers were members of a criminal gang.

Taliban insurgents, who have been behind a series of abductions of Afghans and foreigners in recent months, had said they had not kidnapped the Italians, but the militants are on the run and do not have regular contacts with their comrades.

A NATO spokesman in Kabul, Major Charles Anthony, said the alliance had evidence showing the kidnappers were Taliban.

Italian Prime Minister Romano Prodi said the rescue operation served as a warning.

The operation represented ''a bad defeat for the kidnappers and also a warning for the future. We never had a moment of uncertainty''.

Asked if the kidnappings would lead Italy to take troops out of Afghanistan, he said: ''This certainly isn't the moment to change policy. This episode doesn't change the role and the sense of the international mission in which Italy has an important role.'' Italy has 2,200 troops in Afghanistan. More than 600 are in western Afghanistan running the regional NATO-led command.

NATO CONVOY ATTACKED Herat, bordering Iran, is one of the most peaceful provinces in Afghanistan, but in Farah to the south there has been a steady rise in Taliban activity in recent months.

Spain said two NATO soldiers were killed on Monday after a blast hit their vehicle in Farah.

Defence Minister Jose Antonio Alonso said another six personnel were injured -- three badly. Their Afghan interpreter was also killed. One of the dead was a Spaniard, the other was from Ecuador.

Violence has escalated to its worst level in the past 19 months in Afghanistan, the bloodiest period since Taliban's overthrow from power in 2001.

Yesterday, Taliban fighters ambushed a convoy carrying guards of a private US security firm in Farah, the interior ministry said.

Three guards and 21 Taliban were killed in a clash that followed the ambush while 20 guards were missing, the ministry said on Monday.

A provincial official, speaking on condition of anonymity, told Reuters that 13 guards had died in the attack.

In another ambush, unknown armed men in the relatively secure northeast killed seven policemen and three civil servants on Sunday, police there said.

Reuters JK GC1942

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