By Saeed Ali Achakzai
SPIN BOLDAK, Afghanistan, April 21 (Reuters) - The fugitive Taliban leader Mullah Mohammad Omar has urged his followers to step up suicide attacks on foreign and Afghan troops and remain united, according to a Taliban commander.
Violence has surged in Afghanistan in recent weeks after a winter lull, following last year’s bloodiest period since the Taliban’s ouster in 2001.
Taliban commander Mullah Hayatullah Khan told Reuters late on Friday by satelite phone from an undisclosed location that Omar had contacted senior and regional commanders and congratulated them for carrying out "successful" attacks in recent weeks.
He would not give details as to how and when Mullah Omar contacted the commanders.
"Taliban mujahideen (holy warriors), through unity in their ranks, should continue and increase their guerrilla and suicide attacks on occupation forces and the infidels will soon run away," Khan quoted Omar as saying.
"Mullah Omar has ordered us to liberate our country, (and) we should step up attacks on occupation forces and their puppet Afghans," he said.
The Taliban refer to Western-backed President Hamid Karzai and his associates as puppets.
Mullah Omar, who has a $10 million U.S. government bounty on his head, told his fighters to try not to harm innocent civilians during their offensives, Khan said.
More than 1,000 civilians have been killed during fighting between Taliban with foreign troops-led by NATO and the U.S.-led coalition and Taliban suicide attacks since last year.
The deaths also include hundreds of militants, hundreds of Afghan and foreign troops as well as dozens of aid workers.
The head of NATO said on Thursday he expected to see more suicide attacks and roadside bombings from the Taliban but saw it as a sign of desperation because they lack military muscle.
"They are likely to come in this year, this fighting season, in greater numbers of suicide bombers and IEDs (improvised explosive devices)," he told journalists in his first public briefing at the heavily fortified NATO compound in Kabul.
"It’s as much a desperation tactic as anything."
Omar’s whereabouts are not known. Afghanistan’s government insists the one-eyed bearded Omar lives and operates in Pakistan, the former key supporter of the Taliban until the Sept. 11 attacks on the United States.
Islamabad denies this and the Taliban say Omar lives in Afghanistan and coordinates attacks from there.
The Taliban and their Islamic allies such as the al Qaeda network, are largely active in southern and eastern areas close to the border with Pakistan.
The Taliban have been copying suicide attacks and kidnapping tactics from Iraqi militants and hold two French aid workers.
On Friday they threatened to kill the pair if Taliban demands were not met in one week’s time.
The Islamic group has told France to withdraw its 1,100 strong force from Afghanistan and wants release of Taliban’s prisoners held by the Afghan government.
Afghan President Hamid Karzai has vowed that his government would do all it can to free the two French nationals, who were kidnapped on April 4, a state newspaper said on Saturday, amid an ultimatum by Taliban.
Karzai gave the assurance on Friday to France’s Foreign Affairs Permanent Secretary Philippe Faure.
"The president of the country assured ... the envoy of the all sided cooperation of ... Afghanistan regarding the safe release of French nationals," the Anis daily said, without elaborating.
Karzai has ruled out any ransom deal for Afghan or foreign hostages after he was criticised for releasing five Taliban prisoners last month in return for the release of an Italian journalist.
Daniele Mastrogiacomo was freed after two weeks, but his Afghan driver and translator were beheaded.
The Mastrogiacomo deal drew criticism in Afghanistan and Italy for encouraging the Taliban to take more hostages.
The Taliban are also holding five Afghan health workers and have threatened to kill one soon unless the government starts negotiations for their release. (Additional reporting by Sayed Salahuddin)