NATO suffers deadliest day this year in Afghanistan

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Thirteen NATO soldiers have been killed in two days in Afghanistan, one of the deadliest bouts for the alliance this year, underlining a growing Taliban momentum in defiance of calls for peace talks.

Seven Americans, two Australians and one French soldier were killed on Monday as they pursued a nearly nine-year war against an insurgent Taliban militia that is seeking to overthrow the Western-backed government.

Three more NATO troops were killed in the south on Tuesday, two in a bomb attack and a British soldier during a gun battle, said the Ministry of Defence in London and the International Security Assistance Force (ISAF).

Furthermore, two foreign contractors, one of them American, were killed in a suicide attack on an Afghan police training centre in the southern city of Kandahar on Monday, the US embassy said.

The deaths of 10 NATO soldiers made Monday the deadliest day for foreign troops in Afghanistan since 14 Americans, including 11 US soldiers, died in two helicopter crashes on October 26, 2009.

Of the 13 NATO soldiers killed on Monday and Tuesday, all but the French and Australians were killed in the south, heartland of the Taliban and where tens of thousands of troops are building up operations around Kandahar.

The Islamist militia recently vowed to unleash a new campaign of attacks on diplomats, lawmakers and foreign forces.

It claimed a rocket attack on a peace meeting in Kabul where 1,600 delegates from across Afghanistan's political spectrum last week endorsed plans by President Hamid Karzai to give jobs and money to militants who lay down arms.

That the Taliban were not invited and that escalating violence has seen more NATO soldiers killed in the first five months of 2010 compared to the same period in the past, has seen many analysts dismiss peace efforts.

"The priority in Afghanistan should be improving security and governance," Haroun Mir, director of Afghanistan's Centre for Research and Policy, told AFP.

"The peace jirga has emboldened the Taliban to see that everyone else -- including the international community -- is trying to buy their favour."

The Taliban, who were overthrown by the 2001 US-led invasion, have stepped up their campaign to rid Afghanistan of the 130,000 foreign troops and have spread their influence beyond their traditional stronghold in the south.

Waheed Mujda, a political analyst who was a government official during the 1996-2001 Taliban regime, said militants have increased attacks in reaction to the peace discussion.

"Taliban were quite unhappy about the peace jirga discussions and the fact that neither the withdrawal of foreign forces nor amendments to the constitution (to include Islamic law) were discussed," Mujda said.

"So they have intensified their operations because they want to be powerful and be in a better position."

But NATO, US and Afghan soldiers are also preparing their biggest offensive yet against the Taliban in Kandahar province, with total foreign troop numbers in the country set to peak at 150,000 by August.

Officials said Afghan and foreign forces killed 37 militants during operations late Monday in Kandahar and the western province of Badghis.

President Barack Obama has ordered the US war effort to be ramped up in the hope that an initial surge will break the back of the Taliban insurgency and allow him to start drawing down troops next year.

Obama and his military commanders are banking on a push into the militant bastion of Kandahar -- the birthplace of the Taliban and seat of their five-year government -- to defeat the movement.

US military have warned that casualty tolls will naturally climb during the increased operations.

According to an AFP tally based on a count kept by the independent website, 248 foreign soldiers have been killed in Afghanistan so far this year. Last year was the deadliest yet with 520 killed.

The rising toll is unwelcome news in Washington and London -- the two biggest contributors of troops supporting Karzai's government -- with voters increasingly weary of casualties in a seemingly endless foreign war.

© 2010 AFP

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