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NATO nations fail to agree on extra forces for Afghanistan

KABUL, Afghanistan -- NATO nations failed to agree on calls by military commanders for 2,500 extra troops to help crush the growing Taliban-led insurgency in Afghanistan, where at least 50 people were killed yesterday in widespread violence.

NATO announced that 173 people, including 151 Afghan civilians, have been killed in suicide bombings across the country since the start of the year. The remaining victims include NATO and US-led coalition forces and Afghan authorities.

It was the first time NATO released such figures, and they indicate the dangerous change in tactics by militants, who have been following the lead of insurgent attacks in Iraq.

The ferocity of the Taliban resurgence since their 2001 ouster has taken US and NATO commanders by surprise, particularly in southern provinces where NATO forces have been clashing daily with militants since taking control of the region on Aug. 1.

``Such blatant disregard for human life and potential undertaken by insurgents who callously ask to be called mujahideen [holy warriors] cannot be more clear," NATO spokesman Major Luke Knittig said.

US officials announced after a Kabul car bombing Friday in which 16 people were killed -- including two American troops -- that a suicide bombing cell was hunting foreign troops in the capital.

Meanwhile, thousands of Canadian troops reclaimed more contested territory from Taliban fighters in the southern Kandahar Province insurgent hotbeds of Panjwayi and Zhari. NATO forces say they have killed at least 517 militants in both districts since launching a large-scale campaign on Sept. 2 dubbed Operation Medusa.

Purported Taliban spokesmen dispute the death toll and assert in videotapes that they are pushing NATO forces to the limit across the vast deserts and mountain ranges of Helmand and Kandahar provinces.

About 8,000 Canadian, British and Dutch soldiers -- almost half of the 20,000-strong NATO force -- are leading the anti-Taliban push in the south. But military chiefs say 2,500 more troops, plus greater air support, would help them crush the Taliban threat more quickly.

In Brussels, allied military specialists failed yesterday to commit more troops, planes, and helicopters to the NATO mission, despite a plea by the alliance's American commander, General James L. Jones.

``No formal offers were made at the table," NATO spokesman James Appathurai said. He said at a news conference that some allies had given ``positive indications" on the reinforcements, but suggested final decisions may have to wait until a Sept. 28-29 meeting of NATO defense ministers in Slovenia.

In Kabul, another NATO spokesman, Mark Laity, said NATO forces were only at ``85 percent of the capabilities we were told we would have" to fight between 4,000 and 7,000 insurgents believed active in the country.

``These extra forces are needed because we are in a particularly intense environment," Laity told the Associated Press. ``But Operation Medusa proves that we have considerable capabilities that we can do a considerable amount with."

Prime Minister Tony Blair of Britain said all NATO members had a responsibility to back the alliance's Afghan cause.

``NATO is looking at what further requirements there are, and NATO and NATO countries have got a duty to respond," he told reporters in London.

In southern Helmand Province, police killed 16 Taliban in a mountainous area outside the town of Garmser, which militants recently took over for the second time in two months, before Afghan and NATO forces claimed it again on Monday.

Garmser police chief Ghulam Rassoul said the militants were killed in a four-hour battle late Tuesday and yesterday.

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