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NATO Fears New Front as Taliban Fighters Strike Western Afghanistan

September 15, 2006|From the Associated Press

KABUL, Afghanistan — As NATO troops exert pressure on Taliban forces in southern Afghanistan, militants have regrouped in western provinces and ignited violence that has killed a dozen people in two days, officials said.

Afghan and NATO officials fear that Farah province, which borders Iran, could become a Taliban haven if military power isn't used to crush the threat.

Farah is a predominantly Pushtun area where people have ethnic links to the Taliban.

U.S.-led and NATO forces have been battling Taliban and allied militants this year in Afghanistan's worst spate of violence since an American-led invasion toppled the hard-line regime in 2001 for harboring Al Qaeda leader Osama bin Laden.

As many as 200 Taliban fighters in dozens of pickup trucks poured into the town of Bakwa early Thursday, surrounding a police compound and firing rocket-propelled grenades at police officers, said Maj. Gen. Sayed Agha Saqeb, the provincial police chief.

Taliban fighters took over the compound for an hour before police reinforcements drove them into the desert darkness. Two militants were killed and two wounded, and two police officers also died and two were wounded, Saqeb said.

The raid came a day after Taliban insurgents ambushed a police patrol elsewhere in Farah province. Four policemen and four militants were killed. Several days earlier, a roadside bombing there wounded four Italian soldiers.

"If there is the possibility of some sort of security deterioration in the area, we will get onto it very quickly," said Maj. Toby Jackman, a spokesman for the North Atlantic Treaty Organization.

About 1,600 NATO-led troops operate in western Afghanistan's desert plains and mountainous provinces, including Farah. The region has long been spared the kind of violence seen in southern and eastern provinces.

In the south, Canadian-led troops are mounting an incursion into Kandahar province's Panjwayi and Zhari districts. They have killed at least 510 Taliban in an operation that began Sept. 2.

Alliance forces are aware insurgents could be fleeing into Farah from Kandahar and Helmand provinces, Jackman said.

The threat of a new front comes as NATO commanders try to persuade member states to send more soldiers and air support to battle the Taliban resurgence.

Poland pledged a 1,000-strong mechanized force Thursday, but the troops would not be deployed until February. NATO has about 20,000 forces in Afghanistan, with almost half -- from Britain, Canada and the Netherlands -- deployed in the south.

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