Italian PM in Christmas visit to Afghanistan

Italian PM in Christmas visit to   Afghanistan

( AFP ) - Prime Minister Romano Prodi pledged Italy's long-term support for Afghanistan in talks with President Hamid Karzai Sunday during a visit to meet his troops in a NATO-led force fighting an insurgency.

Prodi , whose Christmastime visit follows trips Saturday by the leaders of France and Australia, also met US General Dan McNeill, commander of a NATO-led force of 39 nations helping the government battle the Taliban-led unrest.

He celebrated Mass with some of the more than 1,000 Italian troops in Kabul and later travelled west to a base of NATO's International Security Assistance Force (ISAF) in Herat where there are 800 other Italian soldiers.

Prodi assured Karzai of "the continuation of his country's long-term support," a statement from the Afghan presidential palace said.

The two leaders had discussed "the regional situation, Afghanistan's achievements and developments, the repatriation of refugees, health services and the increased enrolment of children in schools," it said.

Karzai in turn called on Prodi to encourage Italian investment in his country, one of the poorest in the world.

Improvements in health and education are among the main achievements of the post-Taliban regime although rising insecurity is slowing down development in other sectors.

The past year has been the bloodiest in an insurgency launched by the extremist Taliban movement removed from power in a US-led invasion weeks after the September 11 attacks by the Al-Qaeda network.

The regime was ousted after five years of harsh rule for failing to heed warnings to hand over Al-Qaeda leaders it had sheltered for years.

Officials reported Sunday a string of new attacks linked to the Taliban that left around two dozen people dead.

In central Ghazni province, police said Taliban rebels had shot dead seven men held captive for under a week. Three bodies had been found and police were looking for others, provincial police chief Khan Mohammad Mujahed told AFP.

A Taliban spokesman, Zabihullah Mujahed , said the seven -- three policemen, two soldiers and two civilian truck drivers for a Western firm -- had tried to escape a Taliban "jail" on Saturday.

Three civilians were meanwhile killed Sunday in a bomb blast in the east, near the border with Pakistan, police said.

The Afghan and international militaries reported at least 14 Taliban killed in other clashes.

With violence rising steadily over the past two years, public support for the costly mission in Afghanistan has been precarious in some of the ISAF nations.

But French President Nicolas Sarkozy and Australian Prime Minister Kevin Rudd used their visits Saturday to stress commitment to Afghanistan.

Sarkozy told journalists the international community could not afford to lose the "war against terrorism" in the war-torn nation.

He said the world must be united and committed in efforts to build Afghanistan and help it withstand insurgents linked with the Taliban and Al-Qaeda.

Rudd said Australia would be involved in Afghanistan for the "long haul." He announced extra economic aid but did not say if he would keep the country's nearly 1,000 troops here after their mandate expires next year.

There has been a push in recent months to find other ways to defeat the insurgency, including by putting more emphasis on reconciliation efforts and traditional gatherings and training up the Afghan forces.

A NATO summit in Bucharest in April is to review the international mission, which some commentators have said risks failure.

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