NATO denies Taliban ascendant as Afghan toll mounts

KABUL Sun Jul 11, 2010 7:34am EDT

Local boys walk past U.S. Army soldiers from Alpha Company, 2-508 Parachute Infantry Regiment, 4th Brigade Combat Team, as they conduct a morning patrol through the village of Kowall in Arghandab District, north of Kandahar July 11, 2010. REUTERS/Bob Strong

Local boys walk past U.S. Army soldiers from Alpha Company, 2-508 Parachute Infantry Regiment, 4th Brigade Combat Team, as they conduct a morning patrol through the village of Kowall in Arghandab District, north of Kandahar July 11, 2010.

Credit: Reuters/Bob Strong

KABUL (Reuters) - Insurgents in Afghanistan were not gaining the ascendancy against international troops after a violent weekend across the country, NATO said on Sunday, and there was no need to postpone coming parliamentary elections.

Saturday was a particularly bloody day, with six U.S. soldiers killed in separate incidents and more than a dozen civilians -- including 12 gunned down in a bus near Afghanistan's eastern border with Pakistan.

"The insurgency has not become stronger. We are actually squeezing the insurgency, we are cornering the insurgency, we are taking out the oxygen out of the insurgency," coalition forces spokesman General Josef Blotz told reporters.

Casualties among NATO and U.S. forces fighting the Taliban hit a record high in June and commanders expect violence to rise in parallel with an anti-insurgent offensive in coming months and as the country prepares for parliamentary elections on September 18.

At least 14 Afghan police and a provincial official were killed on Saturday in insurgent attacks in the north, which has largely escaped the worst of fighting between the Taliban and nearly 150,000 NATO-led foreign troops.

Nine police died when their remote checkpost was overrun by insurgents in the Emam Saheb district of Kunduz province, while a homemade bomb also killed the head of Qaleh Zaal district police.

In usually peaceful Badakhshan province, five police died when their vehicle hit a roadside bomb in Kishim district, provincial police chief Aqa Noor Kintoz said.

The International Crisis Group said with security at an all-time low and no sign that the massive fraud and widespread violence that marred last year's presidential election would be turned around, the lower house elections should be postponed.

"It's quite possible that the September voting will result in nothing short of disaster," senior ICG analyst Candace Rondeaux wrote in the Washington Post newspaper.

SPIKE IN VIOLENCE ASSURED

"If the United States and its coalition partners are unable to push back against the Afghan government's unrealistic insistence that Afghan security forces are prepared to secure some 6,800 polling centers, a significant spike in violence is assured on Election Day and afterward," Rondeaux said.

Blotz, speaking at a regular briefing, said a "show of presence" by Afghan and international troops during the election lead-up and voting day would guarantee security, along with enhanced intelligence on the insurgency now being gathered.

"I do not see from the security point of view any reason to postpone the elections," he said.

Blotz also denied reports in American newspapers that Afghan President Hamid Karzai had clashed with newly arrived U.S. and NATO forces commander David Petraeus over plans to form militia-like civilian defense groups as security deteriorated.

And after street protests on Saturday in the northern city of Mazar-i-Sharif, in which hundreds took to the streets to protest against mounting civilian deaths, he defended NATO's record in protecting civilians as the anti-insurgent war intensified.

International troops had killed 42 civilians between June 1 and 10 July, he said, while 464 civilians died in insurgent bombings and shootings. A bomb placed on a motorbike killed one civilian at a bazaar in Kandahar on Saturday.

"This is just demonstrating how brutal, how indiscriminate and how deranged their tactics and procedures are," Blotz said.

Civilian casualties and friendly fire deaths among Afghan security forces have been a frequent irritant between Karzai and Western military forces during the nine-year war since the ousting of the Taliban in 2001.

(Additional reporting by Hamid Shalizi; Editing by David Fox)

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