(AP) - NATO troops assumed command Monday of military operations in volatile southern Afghanistan from the U.S.-led coalition in the latest bid to crush resurgent Taliban forces behind a deadly spike in bloodshed.
But Taliban-led violence flared again when a bomb blast intended for a provincial governor killed eight people Monday at a mosque service. About 30 Taliban fighters were also killed in clashes Sunday, most in southern provinces where NATO has taken command, reports Trend.
The NATO-led force, made up mostly of British, Canadian and Dutch troops, took over in the south from a U.S.-led anti-terror coalition that was first deployed nearly five years ago to unseat the hard-line Taliban regime for harboring al-Qaida chief Osama bin Laden.
"Today's transfer of authority demonstrates to the Afghan people that there is a strong commitment on the part of the international community to further extend security into the southern region's provinces," Lt. Gen. Karl Eikenberry, commander of U.S.-led coalition forces, said in a NATO statement.
The mission is considered the most dangerous and challenging in the Western alliance's 57-year history. It coincides with the deadliest upsurge in fighting in Afghanistan since late 2001 that has killed hundreds of people mostly militants since May.
The takeover follows three days of intense fighting that left more than 50 Taliban fighters and eight others dead.
A bomb planted in a car exploded near a mosque Monday in Farmay Adha, 12 miles south of the Nangarhar provincial capital of Jalalabad. The blast killed eight people, including five police and three children, officials said. Sixteen others were wounded.
Thousands of mourners had gathered at the mosque to mark the death of Younis Khalis, an Islamic hardliner and former commander during the resistance against the Soviet occupation of Afghanistan in the 1980s. He died July 19 at the age of 87 after a long illness.
The provincial police chief, Gen. Abdul Basir Solangi, blamed the Taliban for the bombing, which he believed was aimed at Nangarhar provincial Gov. Gul Agha Sherzai, who drove away from the mosque minutes before the explosion.
Sherzai escaped a May 3 assassination attempt when a bomb planted in a jeep exploded outside his office.
Some 200 Afghan forces also killed 23 Taliban insurgents Sunday in raids on two hideouts near the Helmand provincial town of Garmser, which Taliban forces overran and briefly took control of earlier this month, police said.
Another six insurgents were killed Sunday while fighting Afghan troops in the southeast. Four militants died in separate explosions while planting bombs in southern Kandahar province.
Coalition and Afghan troops killed 20 militants on Saturday in southern Uruzgan province, where some 1,500 Dutch troops have deployed.
The NATO alliance's 8,000-strong deployment in the south includes some U.S. troops and will be under the command of British Lt. Gen. David Richards. Officials said Richards effectively becomes the first non-U.S. general to command American forces in combat operations.
"In one sense it is historical," Richards told reporters Sunday before assuming command. "But also it is important for the world that Afghanistan is not allowed to be tipped back to its pre-9/11 state and allow a Taliban lookalike government with its sympathies to come back into power."
NATO conducted aerial combat operations during the wars in Bosnia and Kosovo in the 1990s, but has yet to conduct major ground combat operations since being founded in 1949 as a deterrent against the Soviet bloc.
NATO already has troops in the more stable regions of Kabul and the north and west of Afghanistan. The U.S.-led coalition will continue to work in the unstable east of Afghanistan, where al-Qaida and Taliban fighters are also active.
Taliban-led insurgents have escalated roadside bombings and suicide attacks this year, and have also mounted brazen attacks on several small towns and district police stations a tactic rarely seen in the previous four years.
NATO hopes to bring a new strategy to dealing with the Taliban rebellion: establishing bases rather than chasing militants. It is also wants to win the support of locals by creating secure zones where development can take place.
But questions remain whether it can quell the violence enough to let aid workers get to work in a lawless and impoverished region, where about a quarter of Afghanistan's huge opium crop is grown.
Another challenge for NATO will be to stem what Afghan and some Western officials say is cross-border infiltration of militants from neighboring Pakistan.
On a visit to Afghanistan on Sunday, French Defense Minister Michele Alliot-Marie said many Taliban fighters were crossing from Pakistan to stage attacks, and urged Pakistan to step up efforts to stop them.
Pakistan, a key U.S. ally in its war on terrorism, says it does all it can to patrol the porous Afghan border.