Nations seek greater UN role in Afghanistan

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UNITED NATIONS, Sep 23 (Reuters) Key countries involved in Afghanistan urged the United Nations today to expand its role there, but Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon said continuing violence kept the world body from operating in some areas.

An 18-nation meeting at UN headquarters also pressed Afghan President Hamid Karzai, heading Kabul's delegation, to promote national reconciliation through an ''inclusive political dialogue'' with the country's turbulent factions.

Ban called the meeting of foreign ministers and top diplomats from Afghanistan's neighbors and key NATO countries to seek increased backing for Afghan and UN efforts to bring peace and stability after years of intermittent fighting.

Since US-backed forces overthrew Afghanistan's Taliban rulers in late 2001, Karzai's government has struggled to keep control, faced with a resurgent Taliban, independent-minded warlords and rising drug production.

About 50,000 foreign troops are deployed there, including a NATO-led International Security Assistance Force, or ISAF, and separately led US forces.

Ban told reporters the three-hour meeting had heard a ''request and strong desire on the part of member states that the United Nations do more ... (and) increase its role there.'' He said the number of UN offices in Afghanistan had been recently increased by nine to a total of 17.

But in an opening address to the delegates Ban said there were areas -- a reference to fighting with the Taliban in the South -- where ''security concerns would not allow me to justify a (UN) presence''.

''In order to carry out such efforts, we need a reasonable level of freedom of movement and security,'' he said.

HIGHER PROFILE Ban also acknowledged that some countries want a higher profile special UN representative with greater authority to assist Karzai in peace-making efforts after the current envoy, Tom Koenigs, leaves his post at the end of this year.

The present UN mission supports and advises the Afghan authorities on economic and political development, justice reform, humanitarian aid and anti-drug programs.

Diplomats at the meeting said US Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice had also suggested appointing an international figure who would represent foreign nations in Afghanistan on assistance and other issues. Ban admitted there was a problem coordinating the many aid and other groups represented there.

Ban said the meeting also agreed that ''there should be more efforts by President Karzai and Afghan leaders in promoting inclusive political dialogue for national reconciliation.'' Karzai told reporters his government was attempting to ''bring back to the fold'' Taliban supporters who were not part of what he called terrorist networks. ''We are working hard on that,'' he said.

An Afghan presidential spokesman said last week Kabul was ready for peace talks with the Taliban but would not accept preconditions demanded by the Islamist rebels, such as the withdrawal of all foreign troops.

A communique today's meeting said it was vital to break the link between drug production from Afghanistan's abundant poppy fields and the financing of ''terrorist'' activities.

Participants would support Afghan efforts to fight poppy cultivation in areas where it had increased, reward districts where poppies were not grown and arrest and prosecute drug traffickers and corrupt officials, it said. It gave no details.

The lack of security in Afghanistan was dramatized by reports that two Italian soldiers were believed to have been kidnapped there. Italian Foreign Minister Massimo D'Alema, attending the UN meeting, said he raised the issue with Karzai, Rice and Iranian Foreign Minister Manouchehr Mottaki.


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