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Air strike kills al Qaeda cell leader in Afghan north

KUNDUZ, Afghanistan (Reuters) - An air strike in northern Afghanistan killed an al Qaeda leader who was planning suicide attacks, NATO-led forces said on Monday, underscoring the spread of the insurgency to once-peaceful areas of the country.

In another incident demonstrating the breadth of the Taliban’s reach outside traditional strongholds in the south and east, a couple were stoned to death in public in northern Kunduz over an alleged illicit love affair, government officials said.

The spread of the insurgency has come despite the presence of almost 150,000 foreign troops, backed by about 300,000 Afghan soldiers and police, who have attempted to take the fight to the militants in southern Helmand and Kandahar provinces.

While Osama bin Laden’s al Qaeda is widely believed to be funding and training the Taliban insurgency in Afghanistan, the capture or killing of senior al Qaeda figures has been relatively uncommon in recent years.

The NATO-led International Security Assistance Force (ISAF) said Abu Baqir, a man they described as a Taliban sub-commander and al Qaeda group leader, was killed when an alliance aircraft fired on a truck in Kunduz province.

The strike was called in after insurgents attacked a police station, ISAF said.

“The air weapons team killed two insurgents including Baqir, who was reportedly housing four potential suicide bombers for upcoming attacks on the city of Kunduz,” it said in a statement.

An ISAF spokesman said no other details, such as the man’s nationality, could be made available yet.

Pursuing al Qaeda after the September 11, 2001, attacks on the United States was the main reason behind the U.S.-led invasion that toppled the Taliban later that year.

In October 2009, White House national security adviser James Jones estimated there were fewer than 100 al Qaeda militants still operating in Afghanistan. He said the question of Afghanistan once again becoming a haven for al Qaeda was “hypothetical.”

A NATO soldiers on a joint patrol with Afghan Army troops in Kandahar province, August 10, 2010. REUTERS/Bob Strong

SCORES KILLED

Once relatively peaceful, Kunduz has been drawn slowly into the insurgency in recent months.

The fragile grip of NATO-led forces there was shown last September, when a U.S. air strike called in by German troops killed scores of people, at least 30 of them civilians. The incident led to the resignation of the German defense minister.

Mohammad Omar, the governor of Kunduz, said on Monday the Taliban had a day earlier publicly stoned to death a couple for adultery.

If confirmed, the executions would be the first of their kind by the Taliban in the area and follow a call last week by Afghan clerics for a return to sharia and capital punishments carried out under the Islamic law.

“The two were stoned to death in a bazaar of Dasht-e Archi district on the accusation of committing the act of adultery,” Omar said.

The Taliban arrested the two, who were each engaged to be married to other people, at the request of their families after they tried to elope, said district police chief Hameed Agha.

Such punishments were commonplace under the Taliban when they ruled Afghanistan from 1996-2001 but they have distanced themselves from the Kunduz executions, and the public flogging and execution of a woman in northwestern Badghis last week.

In the south, Afghan border police seized nearly 17 tonnes of ammonium nitrate, a key component in roadside bombs that are one of the main weapons used by insurgents, officials said.

While the discovery of caches of materials used to make bombs is not unusual, the Kandahar find was the largest of its kind since the chemical was banned earlier this year.

Roadside bombs accounted for about 60 percent of deaths among foreign troops in the past three years, independent monitoring group www.iCasualties.org has estimated.

The total number of foreign troops killed in Afghanistan since 2001 passed the grim milestone of 2,000 at the weekend, focusing attention on a strategic review of the war U.S. President Barack Obama has said he will conduct in December.

The review will follow crucial mid-term Congressional elections, where Obama’s Democrats face a backlash from an increasingly skeptical public. Parliamentary elections are also due in Afghanistan on September 18, with President Hamid Karzai seeking to assert his independence from Western backers.

With no real end to the war in sight, Karzai has been pushing his plan to reconcile with the insurgents, including offering cash and job incentives to Taliban foot soldiers.

Obama wants to begin a phased withdrawal of U.S. troops from July 2011, depending on the readiness of Afghan forces to take over. Karzai has set his forces an ambitious goal of 2014 to take over complete security responsibility.

Further angering Afghan leaders, civilian casualties have also hit record levels in Afghanistan, rising 31 percent in the first half of 2010, according to a U.N. report last week.

Such incidents have long been a major cause of friction between Karzai and his Western backers, even though the number caused by foreign forces has fallen dramatically after tactical directives were tightened by U.S. and NATO commanders.

The tens of thousands of private security contractors operating in Afghanistan have also been a major irritant. Karzai’s office said on Monday such firms would be dissolved within four months.

Additional reporting by Sayed Salahuddin, Hamid Shalizi and Andrew Hammond in KABUL; Writing by Paul Tait; Editing by David Fox

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