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NATO to prepare for Taliban assault

india Updated: Feb 07, 2007 15:05 IST

NATO defence ministers will meet in Seville on Thursday to step up preparations for an expected spring assault by Taliban insurgents on alliance forces in southern Afghanistan.

With the Taliban reportedly gearing up for more attacks on NATO soldiers in the warmer months ahead, alliance governments are under pressure to increase troop and aid contributions to their 34,000-strong Afghan operation.

"It is important we do our work now... to root out Taliban safe havens, strengthen (military) operations and border controls," said a senior US official, speaking on condition of anonymity.

Defence ministers must ensure that 2007 can be a "better year" for Afghanistan, the US official insisted, referring to the massive death toll in the country last year when 4,000 people - including 170 foreign troops - were killed in battles with Taliban forces.

The call for a revised alliance strategy for battling Taliban insurgents will be made by General John Craddock, the new supreme allied commander Europe, who has been to Afghanistan twice since taking over NATO command earlier this year.

The US is also piling up the pressure for a stronger NATO effort in Afghanistan.

"If we do have a spring offensive, it must be by the Afghan government and NATO," the US official told reporters, adding: "We are asking every ally to look at 2007 as an opportunity...to turn a positive corner in Afghanistan."

The message is likely to be hammered home at the Seville meeting by US Secretary of Defence Robert Gates, attending his first NATO ministerial meeting.

A similar plea for bolstering NATO's Afghan operation was made in Brussels last month by US Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice who called for a "comprehensive" alliance blueprint for Afghanistan, including a boost in troop levels, more development aid and stronger counter-narcotics efforts.

Taking the lead, the US has said it intends to spend $10.6 billion to beef up Afghanistan's army and police forces and invest in infrastructure projects. US troop levels in the country are being increased by 3,000 soldiers.

But Washington's plea for more troops - and more assistance - for the war-racked country has met with a mixed response in other NATO capitals.

Britain has said it will add a further 800 troops to its contingent in the most volatile regions in southern Afghanistan.

But other major allies, including France, Spain, Italy and Turkey, with soldiers in the Afghan mission have signalled they will not send more soldiers to the country in the immediate future.

Germany has said it plans to deploy Tornado jets for surveillance with NATO forces in Afghanistan but the fighter aircraft will be barred from any combat activities.

If approved by the German parliament, Tornado pilots will be authorised to provide intelligence for NATO attacks on Taliban formations but will not be allowed to use their bombs or missiles to carry out attacks, according to German officials.

Germany has about 2,700 troops serving with the 35,000-member NATO force in Afghanistan. But German troops are mainly restricted to serving in relatively peaceful northern Afghanistan, and Chancellor Angela Merkel has rejected calls for them to take part in fighting in the southern part of the country.

NATO insists that it has enough troops in Afghanistan to counter any Taliban spring offensive and that as such ministers in Seville will not be engaging in an effort to generate forces.

However, any offer of more soldiers by allies would be "welcomed with open arms", said a NATO official.

The focus would also be on training and equipping the Afghan national army and police force and increasing efforts to fight drug trafficking, the official added.

Separately, ministers are expected to voice the alliance's determination to ensure stability in Kosovo during the months ahead, following UN envoy Martti Ahtisaari's proposal for a final status "settlement package" for the Serbian breakaway province.

In addition, Russian Defence Minister Sergei Ivanov is likely to use the meeting to voice Moscow's concern at US moves to widen its anti-missile defence system by locating a base with 10 interceptor missiles in Poland and a radar system detecting threats in the neighbouring Czech Republic.

US officials insist that the plan is not a threat to Russian security but admit that they expected Ivanov in Seville to express his views with "candour".

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