NATO says will protect Afghans, troops from Pakistani militants

KABUL Tue May 24, 2011 6:55am EDT

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KABUL (Reuters) - NATO will protect its troops and Afghans from militants based across the border in Pakistan, the NATO chief said Tuesday, reiterating pledges by the United States to target insurgents there who have escalated attacks since Osama bin Laden's death.

President Barack Obama's aides are divided between a "hug them" or "hit them" approach to dealing with Pakistan, where anger at the May 2 U.S. on Pakistani soil to kill bin Laden is matched in Washington by angry questions about Islamabad's ties to militants.

"It is well known that there is cross-border activity and it... (is) a problem and a security challenge," NATO Secretary-General Anders Fogh Rasmussen told reporters in Kabul after talks with Afghan President Hamid Karzai.

"We will take all necessary measures to protect the Afghan people and our own troops," he said of the NATO-led International Security Assistance Force (ISAF), whose war against the Taliban in Afghanistan has dragged on for 10 years.

Rasmussen's words echoed comments by Obama and U.S. Senator John Kerry, a Democrat close to his administration, who have both said the United States would consider all options in hunting out senior militants in Pakistan after killing al Qaeda leader bin Laden in a secret raid on May 2.

Pakistani officials are furious at the bin Laden raid, saying his killing was a violation of its sovereignty. Islamabad is now under intense U.S. pressure to explain how bin Laden lived undetected in a garrison town not far from the capital, by some accounts for more than five years.

The bin Laden case has severely strained already uneasy ties between allies Washington and Islamabad.

Karzai called on Pakistan for help "to cooperate with us seriously and by all means, in order to eliminate terrorism and its training bases."

Violence is at its worse in Afghanistan since U.S.-backed forces toppled the Taliban in 2001. Last year saw record casualties on all sides and this year is following a similar trend.

The Taliban's launch this month of its "spring offensive," and escalating violence in Pakistan, are raising questions about NATO plans to hand over all security to Afghan forces by the end of 2014.

Pakistan is seen as a key player in any peace plans in Afghanistan. The United States and NATO have reluctantly backed a plan by Karzai to negotiate with Taliban leaders and forge reconciliation.

Pakistan's Foreign Secretary Salman Bashir, in Kabul on Tuesday ahead of the latest round of trilateral talks with the United States, stressed that Afghan peace plans "can only be settled by Afghans."

"The United States and Pakistan... support the efforts for peace and reconciliation ... We will make an effort to provide our assistance," Bashir said in a statement.

Trilateral talks between Afghanistan, Pakistan and the United States, aimed at fostering stability, were last held in Islamabad a day after bin Laden's death and will be held on Wednesday in Kabul.

(Editing by Paul Tait and Miral Fahmy)

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