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KABUL (Reuters) - Taliban insurgents have consolidated their presence in a remote but strategic area of Afghanistan's north, threatening the security of several provinces long seen as relatively safe, a provincial governor said on Wednesday.
Violence across Afghanistan is at its worst since the Taliban were ousted in 2001, with the Islamist insurgents spreading out of their traditional power bases in the south and east and extending attacks into the north and west.
Civilian and military casualties are at record levels as the war nears its tenth year, despite the presence of about 150,000 foreign troops.
Governor of Sar-i-Pul province Sayed Anwar Rahmati said between 500 and 600 Taliban, among them some Arab, Uzbek and Pakistani militants, are operating in Sar-i-Pul, which borders the key northern province of Balkh and adjacent Faryab and Jowzjan provinces near Central Asia, as well as several other central provinces.
Moving in small groups, often by motorcycle, the Taliban have a big presence in the mountainous Sayaad and Kohestanat districts but are launching attacks in other areas as well, he said.
"They are busy digging caves for their own protection, for storing food, for arms ... in Kohestanat," Rahmati told Reuters in an interview. He said their weapons included at least one Russian-made anti-aircraft gun.
"They are gradually becoming a threat not only for us, but for Jowzjan, Balkh and Faryab, too," he said.
Kunduz has long been used as a jumping-off point by militants in the north but in recent months the Taliban's attention has also turned to Sar-i-Pul, a large, strategically important province west of Kunduz, Rahmati said.
Sar-i-Pul is remote, rugged, suffers from endemic poverty and has a shortage of security forces, allowing the Taliban to gain an important foothold. It has also become a hideout for militants fleeing operations by Afghan forces in other provinces, he said.
Appointed six months ago, Rahmati said the guerrillas had launched a series of raids recently in which several police were killed, forcing some others to abandon their posts.
Their latest attack was a strike three weeks ago against the province's main prison, which lies near government headquarters and a base run by Swedish forces in the provincial capital, he said.
They have also used the province as a launching pad for sporadic attacks in neighboring provinces, Rahmati said.
The rising number of attacks prompted Rahmati and a delegation of elders to visit Kabul last week to express their concerns to Afghan President Hamid Karzai and security officials.
"Sar-i-Pul has a significant and strategic value. The security forces are not able to cover (it) and a large part of the province is vulnerable," Rahmati said.
He said the Taliban were also collecting taxes from the public to finance their operations.
The Taliban have made a strong comeback in recent years, inflicting unprecedented casualties on foreign forces.
Afghanistan's security will be a major topic at a NATO summit in Lisbon this month, and when U.S. President Barack Obama reviews Washington's war strategy in December.
The summit and review come amid sagging support for the unpopular war, with some European NATO members beginning to question how long they can sustain troops in Afghanistan. Obama also plans to begin withdrawing troops gradually from July 2011.
Editing by Paul Tait and Daniel Magnowski