Afghanistan hostage vow as Australia pledges troops

KABUL (AFP) – Afghanistan promised Tuesday to do its utmost to free two French aid workers seized a week ago by the Taliban as Australia pledged to nearly double its military force in the insurgency-hit country

Highlighting the dangers posed by the resurgent Islamic movement that was toppled by US-led forces in 2001, fresh Taliban attacks left eight people dead, including four Afghan soldiers killed in an ambush on Tuesday.

The Taliban have also been behind a wave of kidnappings which analysts say are meant to capitalise on a deal made by the government last month to swap an Italian reporter abducted by the rebels for five Taliban.

When asked about two French nationals missing since April 3, a spokesman for US-backed President Hamid Karzai said Tuesday that “the security institutions are doing their utmost … for their safe release”.

The Taliban say they have been holding the pair, and three Afghans who work for the aid organisation Terre d’Enfance (A World For Our Children), since abducting them in the southwestern province of Nimroz.

Karzai, however, said last week no more hostage deals would be made after a controversial trade involving five Taliban prisoners resulted in the release of Daniele Mastrogiacomo, a reporter for the Italian daily La Repubblica.

Afghan journalist Ajmal Naqshbandi, who was seized along with the Italian, was beheaded by the militants on Sunday. The rebels have also threatened to kill one of a five-strong Afghan medical team seized separately on March 27.

The abductions also underline the challenges facing a special Australian task force, spearheaded by 300 elite soldiers, that will be deployed shortly to counter an expected summer offensive by the Taliban.

As he announced the boost, Australian Prime Minister John Howard told reporters in Sydney that his countrymen should be prepared for casualties.

Howard said, however, that the war against the Taliban would not be won without extra effort and that the possibility of Afghanistan again becoming a “bolthole for terrorists” was real.

Australia already has some 550 soldiers in Afghanistan. Its total military commitment would reach about 950 troops by the middle of this year, and 1,000 next year, he said.

The new elite troops, including Special Air Services soldiers and commandos, would be sent to Uruzgan province in south-central Afghanistan.

Around 48,000 foreign troops are currently operating in Afghanistan.

Meanwhile, in Zabul province which borders Uruzgan, the Taliban ambushed an Afghan army convoy with rockets and machineguns Tuesday, killing four soldiers and injuring 19 as they returned to their base, a defence ministry spokesman said.

On Monday, two Afghan soldiers were killed and four seriously injured when rebels attacked another convoy near Qalat, the capital of Zabul, on a motorway leading from Kabul to the southern city of Kandahar, officials said.

Also on Monday, Taliban fighters opened fire on a police vehicle in Kandahar, the birthplace of the Taliban movement, sparking a gunbattle in which a policeman and an insurgent were killed, police chief Esmatullah Alizai said.

Nearly 1,000 people have died in Taliban-related violence since January, including scores of Afghan security forces, civilians and militants themselves, along with 34 foreign soldiers, according to an AFP toll based on reports.

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