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NATO to hit Taliban in spring offensive: Gates

world Updated:

IANS
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NATO is gearing up for an offensive against the Taliban aimed at crippling the Afghan insurgency, said United States Secretary of Defence Robert Gates.

"We have an opportunity this spring to significantly disrupt the increasing cycles of violence caused by the Taliban," Gates said on Thursday after a meeting of defence ministers from the 26 NATO member states.

"The spring offensive in Afghanistan should be our offensive," he said. There have been reports in past weeks that Taliban forces are preparing an assault on NATO troops.

<b1>Gates said NATO ministers agreed that this year the fight had to be taken to the Taliban.

"Each spring for several years the Taliban have been more aggressive and there has been growing level of violence," said Gates.

"There is consensus that this year we knock that back and bring the situation fully under control."

NATO currently has 35,460 soldiers in Afghanistan. The US has 8,000 troops in the country under separate command.

Last year saw the bloodiest conflict in Afghanistan since 2001 when a US-led coalition toppled the Taliban regime.

Over 4,000 people - including 170 foreign troops - were killed in fighting.

However, Germany and France have expressed doubts over further troop build-up in Afghanistan.

"When the Russians were in Afghanistan they had 100,000 soldiers there and they did not win this process.

We are not occupiers in Afghanistan, but rather liberators and we must win over the public," said German Defence Minister Franz Josef Jung.

Jung said security and rebuilding were the top issues in Afghanistan.

French Defence Minister Michele Alliot-Marie also expressed scepticism about sending more troops, diplomats said.

The NATO operation in Afghanistan is starkly divided between countries involved in combat and those keeping their soldiers away from ongoing firefights.

Soldiers from the US, Canada, Britain, Denmark and the Netherlands are engaged in military operations against the Taliban. Canadian forces have taken especially heavy casualties over the past year.

Germany, France, Spain, Italy and Turkey, however, have mainly deployed their troops in relatively peaceful regions of Afghanistan.

Prodding Germany to do more, Danish Defence Minister Soren Gade warned there was a dangerous lack of NATO soldiers in volatile southern Afghanistan.

"I think more countries should take responsibilities in the south," said Gade, adding: "I am not naming them."

Germany has repeatedly refused to send combat forces to serve with NATO allies in southern Afghanistan. Germany's 2,700 troops in the country are mainly restricted to serving in northern Afghanistan.

On Wednesday, the German cabinet approved deploying six Tornado jets for Afghan surveillance but strictly barred the jets from taking part in any air strikes.

NATO ministers were briefed on a revised Afghan alliance blueprint by General Bantz Craddock, supreme allied commander Europe, and also met Afghan Defence Minister Abdul Rahim Wardak.

Kabul is seeking more equipment and training for the Afghan armed forces.