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US troops to use less force in Afghan sweeps

General promises more restraint after complaints

KABUL, Afghanistan -- The top US general in Afghanistan promised President Hamid Karzai to tone down aggressive tactics in sweeps for Taliban-led insurgents and to ensure US troops are more sensitive to Afghans' conservative ways, the military said yesterday.

Already fending off allegations of prisoner abuse, General David Barno agreed that his troops would try to smash in fewer doors and handcuff fewer villagers to ease resentment and foster goodwill, a military spokesman said.

''The coalition recognizes that its forces are guests in Afghanistan," Major Scott Nelson said.

Nearly three years after the Sept. 11 attacks, the US military is still searching for Al Qaeda chief Osama bin Laden and Taliban leader Mullah Mohammed Omar, but Nelson said the new tactics would not hamper the hunt for militants. The changes will ''improve Afghan and coalition cooperation in ridding the country of terrorists," he said.

Local leaders have long complained of heavily armed American soldiers and allied Afghan militiamen descending on villages in the dead of night, leaving behind a trail of wrecked property, wrongful detentions, and trampled customs.

Rights groups say such tactics may have caused unnecessary deaths and stoked sympathy for Taliban rebels who continue to defy the 18,000-soldier force under Barno's command.

Anti-American leaflets earlier this year depicted a male US soldier searching under a woman's all-encompassing burqa -- something that would be deeply offensive to Afghanistan's conservative Islamic mores.

The military previously had bristled at criticism of search tactics, pointing out that Afghanistan is still a war zone more than two years after the hardline Islamic regime's ouster. Two US soldiers were killed by a roadside bomb Saturday.

But Barno agreed to soften methods after Karzai called him to his Kabul palace last Wednesday.

The agreement was ''very positive," presidential spokesman Jawed Ludin said yesterday. ''Respect among the Afghan people for the coalition will now increase."

Barno said his troops will now consult local officials and tribal elders before launching sweeps and will get elders to first ask residents to open their doors, to avoid having to kick their way in. Troops also will receive training in ''local customs and courtesies."

The US commander also agreed to a raft of measures relating to prisoners, which is another sore issue since the scandal over abuse of detainees in Iraq drew fresh attention to complaints of mistreatment in Afghanistan.

The military will pay for reconstruction projects in areas where people were detained and subsequently released; Afghans will be told to go to the international Red Cross for information on prisoners; and an Afghan-US body will be set up to ''resolve detainee issues," Nelson said.

The US military is investigating several allegations that prisoners were abused in its custody in Afghanistan, including at least four cases involving deaths. Some Afghans have reported being beaten and sexually abused while being held.

Barno is expected to present the delayed results of a review of procedures at a secretive network of about 20 holding facilities across Afghanistan later this month. Officials say undisclosed changes have already been made because of its findings.

The prison review and pledge to respect Afghan customs come as the military deepens its involvement in relief operations and in providing security for the country's October presidential election.

American troops are focusing on the south and east, where most insurgent activity occurs. Some 6,500 NATO-led soldiers cover the capital and the north.

Command of the NATO mission passed yesterday from Canada to Eurocorps, a five-nation force led by Lieutenant General Jean-Louis Py of France.

Most of that force remains in Kabul, but small teams have set up posts in several northern towns this year under a NATO plan to gradually replace US-led troops across Afghanistan. The European force is scheduled to increase to as many as 10,000 soldiers around the Oct. 9 election to try to prevent attacks by militants.

Twelve election workers and guards have been killed so far, all in the US sector in the south and east.

The governor of Uruzgan province, a Taliban stronghold, said yesterday that his forces captured four regional commanders and killed six other militants in two separate weekend raids on their hideouts. Governor Jan Mohammed said the commanders were planning attacks on Afghan and coalition forces but were not believed to be in the Taliban's inner circle.

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