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NATO to expand mission in Afghanistan

22 suspected Taliban killed in clashes

KABUL, Afghanistan -- Fighting in southern Afghanistan killed 22 suspected Taliban militants, officials said yesterday, as NATO nations approved expanding the alliance's peacekeeping force into the region.

Taliban fighters have stepped up attacks this year, triggering the worst violence since the hard-line regime was ousted in 2001 for hosting Osama bin Laden. .

The latest clashes, involving Afghan and US-led coalition troops and air power, occurred Tuesday and yesterday in two districts of Helmand province, also the hub of Afghanistan's huge trade in opium and heroin.

Militants attacked a coalition patrol with machine guns and rocket-propelled grenades in Garmser district Tuesday but suffered seven dead, a coalition statement said.

Another five militants were killed and 11 were wounded yesterday when they battled 200 Afghan police in Garmser, district police chief Ghulan Rasool said.

In Musa Qala district on Tuesday night, 10 militants were killed and 15 wounded by coalition and Afghan forces backed by airstrikes, said Ghulam Nabi Nalakhail, Helmand's chief of police.

No security forces were hurt in the violence, officials said.

The increase in violence comes as about 8,000 NATO forces -- mostly British, Canadian, and Dutch -- deploy in the south as part of an alliance expansion. NATO also has troops in Kabul and northern and western Afghanistan.

In Brussels, NATO nations formally approved the move into the southern provinces. The alliance's top military commander, US General James L. Jones, will begin taking command of the region from US-led coalition troops this month, officials said.

Francesc Vendrell, special European Union representative for Afghanistan, said there would be 18,000 NATO troops nationwide along with a similar number of US forces -- the biggest foreign military presence in the post-Taliban period.

With NATO bolstering its presence, the United States is expected to withdraw several thousand troops.

However, Vendrell said the NATO mission to pacify and rebuild the region would have been easier had troops deployed three or four years earlier -- before the Taliban regrouped and local disenchantment set in over official corruption and continuing poverty.

In addition to military action, Vendrell said stabilizing the south required efforts to improve governance and development. Corrupt police and government officials are involved in the region's booming drug trade.

In the weeks preceding the coalition's handover to NATO, more than 10,000 US-led troops have fanned out across southern Afghanistan, killing more than 600 suspected Taliban militants since June 10, according to the coalition.

At least 19 coalition soldiers also have been killed in the same period, according to an Associated Press count based on coalition information.

Also, police questioned four Afghans about the fatal shooting of a Canadian reconstruction worker, identified as Mike Frastacky, who was found dead in northern Baghlan province Monday. General Eawaz Khan, the provincial police chief, said there were no clear suspects or motives.

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