Ten foreign soldiers, including seven Americans, were killed in separate attacks on the deadliest day of the year for Western forces in Afghanistan. A US civilian contractor who trains Afghan police also died in a brazen suicide assault.
The bloodshed on Monday comes as insurgents step up bombings and other attacks ahead of a major NATO operation in the Taliban stronghold of Kandahar that Washington hopes will turn the tide of the nearly nine-year war.
Half the NATO deaths - five Americans - occurred in a single blast in eastern Afghanistan, US spokesman Col Wayne Shanks said without giving further details. It was a grim reminder that the insurgents can strike throughout the country, not simply in the south, which has become the main focus of the US campaign. Two other US troops were killed in separate attacks in the south - one in a bombing and the other by small arms fire.
NATO said three other service members were killed in attacks in the east and south but gave no further details. The French government announced one of the victims was a sergeant in the French Foreign Legion killed by a rocket in Kapisa province northeast of Kabul. Three other Legionnaires were wounded.
Australia's Defense Force Chief Lt Gen David Hurley said two Australian soldiers were among those killed, when they were hit by a blast from an improvised explosive device in southern Afghanistan's Uruzgan province.
"I think we're just seeing a hard day in theatre," Hurley told reporters in Canberra. "There are a lot of troops in action, a lot going on at this present time, and this has just been a difficult day for us."
Australia is not a NATO member, but its 1,500 troops in Afghanistan - the largest contingent outside the Northern Atlantic alliance - are under NATO command as part of the International Security Assistance Force.
ISAF spokesman First Sgt Kevin Bell confirmed there were 10 deaths in total among international forces on Monday. The American police trainer and a Nepalese security guard were killed when a team of three suicide bombers attacked the main gates of the police training centre in the southern city of Kandahar, US officials said.
Afghan officials said one bomber blew a hole in the outer wall, enabling the two others to rush inside, where they were killed in a gunbattle. Afghan officials said three police personnel were wounded. It was the deadliest day for NATO since Oct 26, when 11 American troops were killed, including seven who died in a helicopter crash in eastern Afghanistan. The crash was not believed a result of hostile fire.
US commanders have warned of more casualties as the alliance gears up for a major operation to secure Kandahar, the former headquarters of the Taliban and the biggest city in the south with a half million people.
Last December, President Barack Obama ordered 30,000 US troops to Afghanistan to try to stem the rise of the Taliban, who have bounced back since they were ousted from power in the 2001 US-led invasion. Obama has shifted the focus of the US campaign against Islamist terror to Afghanistan from Iraq, where the US is expected to draw down to 50,000 troops by the fall.
As fighting escalates, the Afghan government is reaching out to the insurgents in hopes of ending the war.
Last week, President Hamid Karzai won endorsement from a national conference, or peace jirga, for his plan to offer economic and other incentives to the militants to lay down their arms, and to seek talks with the Taliban leadership. The leadership has so far publicly shunned the offer, and the US is skeptical whether peace can succeed until the Taliban are weakened on the battlefield. The Taliban have branded Karzai a US puppet and say there will be no talks while foreign troops are in Afghanistan.