KUNDUZ, Afghanistan (Reuters) - Afghanistan and the United States took public steps to end a feud on Sunday with the Afghan president touring a city alongside the U.S. and NATO commander and Washington calling him a “reliable partner”.
Afghan President Hamid Karzai and U.S. General Stanley McChrystal met hundreds of elders in Kunduz, the third such trip in recent days, in what NATO says is part of its strategy of emphasizing the Afghan government’s role in military efforts.
That strategy has been strained in recent days by a row in which the Afghan president drew the wrath of the White House by accusing Western embassies of carrying out election fraud. The White House said on Friday it considered the quarrel over.
On Sunday, two U.S. Cabinet officials went one step further, publicly defending Karzai in an interview on U.S. television, saying the United States saw him as a “reliable partner” despite a recent war of words between the two sides.
“The working relationship with him on a day-to-day basis is still going quite well,” Defense Secretary Robert Gates said on CBS’s “Face the Nation” alongside Secretary of State Hillary Clinton.
“I think what you’re hearing from Secretary Gates and me today is we consider him a reliable partner,” Clinton added.
In a sign of the volatility of a once-peaceful northern region, plans for Karzai to address German troops in Kunduz on Sunday were called off at the last minute. Residents and German forces said rockets had fallen near the German base there.
Kunduz has seen a surge in Taliban attacks and is expected to become a main battle front in coming months.
“I call on the Taliban, the Kunduz Taliban: Brothers! Dears! ... Come and have your say, but not by the gun,” Karzai told the gathered elders. “You say, ‘Foreigners are here.’ But as long as you fight, they won’t leave.”
Scores of German troops assembled at their base waiting for Karzai to address them, but an officer announced the stop had been canceled “due to security reasons and a tight timetable”.
Lieutenant-Colonel Paul Weber said rockets had landed near the base. A villager said he had seen two rockets.
In the south of the country, hundreds of people protested against an Italian charity that operates a hospital where staff have been accused of plotting to assassinate a provincial governor.
Demonstrators stood outside the hospital in Lashkar Gah, capital of Afghanistan’s most violent province Helmand, chanting “Death to Emergency!” Emergency is the name of a Milan-based charity that runs a hospital in the city.
Provincial authorities said on Saturday three Italians had been arrested for plotting to kill the governor of the southern province, bringing arms and explosive vests into the hospital.
“Those who brought explosives into the hospital to carry out an attack must be arrested and tried for their acts,” protester Khosrawi Jan said.
On Sunday, the head of Emergency, Gino Strada, told reporters in Milan the arrest of three of its workers was a “set-up” and that Afghan and NATO forces wanted to silence a “troublesome witness” of civilians’ suffering in Afghanistan.
“They want to get rid of a troublesome witness. Someone has organized this set-up because they want Emergency to leave Afghanistan,” Strada said.
He accused Karzai’s government of effectively “kidnapping” the charity’s employees -- a doctor, a nurse and a logistics worker -- with the backing of NATO forces.
A spokesman for the NATO-led force said on Saturday no NATO troops were involved in the arrest, but Strada said video footage of the arrest showed NATO soldiers were at the hospital.
Italy, which has around 3,000 soldiers in Afghanistan, has said it is studying the case.
U.S. and British forces launched an offensive in Helmand in February, part of McChrystal’s plan to use an extra 30,000 U.S. troops this year to turn the tide against a spreading insurgency and pave the way for troops to begin leaving in 2011.
Increasingly that will mean fighting in northern cities like Kunduz, once seen as safer but now hit by the spread of Taliban influence from their main strongholds in the south and the east.
McChrystal is expected to send 2,500 U.S. troops in coming months to beat back Taliban fighters who have seized much of Kunduz despite the presence of German troops. The Germans operate under post-World War Two restrictions on their combat role, which critics say have allowed the Taliban to advance.
Germany has the third largest contingent in Afghanistan, numbering more than 4,000, but increasing violence in areas it patrols has made the campaign controversial back home.
Additional reporting by Mohammad Hamed in KUNDUZ, Abdul Malek in LASHKAR GAH, Sayed Salahuddin, Peter Graff in KABUL, Emily Kaiser in WASHINGTON, and Roberto Bonzio in MILAN; writing by Peter Graff and Jonathon Burch; editing by Michael Roddy