US-led troops battled militants in Afghanistan yesterday and announced they killed 42 suspected insurgents, while a Taliban suicide bomber wounded five German soldiers.
The clashes came as a Taliban commander threatened a new campaign of suicide bombings and attacks in response to an imminent surge of 21,000 US troops under a sweeping new strategy rolled out by Washington to stabilise the country.
The deadliest battle was in the southern province of Uruzgan where the US military said nearly two dozen militants were killed after ambushing a patrol of coalition troops and police.
"Afghan and coalition forces returned fire and called for close air support, killing 23 militants," it said in a statement in Kabul.
Nine more were killed in the adjoining province of Helmand in fighting that erupted when troops "positively identified armed militants preparing an attack from inside a wooded area," the same statement said.
Security forces also found nearly 100 kilograms (220 pounds) of opium and 2,400 kilograms of ammonium nitrate used to produce explosives, it said.
Volatile Helmand is Afghanistan's main opium production belt, the largest in the world and which officials say bankrolls insurgent activity.
The US military said 10 insurgents were killed in a battle with troops under US command southwest of Kabul in the strategic province of Logar – the site of a multi-billion-dollar Chinese project to develop a copper mine.
The death tolls could not be independently verified.
There are around 38,000 US soldiers in Afghanistan in a foreign deployment of roughly 70,000 – with Britain and Germany the other top contributors.
Five German troops were wounded yesterday in a suicide car bomb attack targeting a German convoy in the northern province of Kunduz, said the defence ministry in Berlin.
The attack, claimed by the Taliban, came as German Foreign Minister Frank-Walter Steinmeier and Afghan President Hamid Karzai discussed boosting troop numbers to secure an August election, the presidency announced.
Concerned about escalating violence in Afghanistan and widening Taliban control in nuclear-armed Pakistan, the United States and other countries have pledged more soldiers for Afghanistan.
Germany has 3,500 soldiers in NATO's International Security Assistance Force – the third-largest military contingent behind those of the United States and Britain.
The German parliament has voted to increase its deployment to 4,500.
Britain will boost its troops in Afghanistan to 9,000 to help the country through the elections, Prime Minister Gordon Brown said Wednesday, unveiling a new strategy for Afghanistan and Pakistan.
Turkey is also envisaging sending more soldiers to Afghanistan, on top of 800 infantry soldiers based in Kabul, army chief Ilker Basbug said.
And Australian Prime Minister Kevin Rudd announced yesterday he would increase his country's troop commitment by 450 soldiers to 1,550.
The Taliban threatened new suicide attacks in response to the imminent arrival of thousands of extra Western troops.
"Operation Nasrat" (Victory) would be launched today, and would also target Afghan officials and international diplomats, claimed Taliban spokesman Zabihullah Mujahid, who read out a statement to AFP over the telephone.
"Our targets will be the units of the invading forces, diplomatic stations, convoys, ranking officials of the puppet government, MPs, and employees of the defence, interior and intelligence ministries," it said.
The Taliban have previously issued warnings of new operations but military officials dismiss the significance of such threats.
Zimbabwe Prime Minister Morgan Tsvangirai yesterday sought to overcome worries about the country's unity government insisting that restoring the rule of law was a top priority.
"Only through restoration of the rule of law can we remove the uncertainy of doing business in Zimbabwe and restore investor confidence," Tsvangirai told a gathering of executives on the sidelines of a trade show in the city of Bulawayo.
His speech was part of a major push to ease doubts about the power-sharing deal with President Robert Mugabe, as Finance Minister Tendai Biti headed to Washington for an International Monetary Fund meeting on Zimbabwe next week.
The government is seeking 8.5 billion dollars over three years to revive the economy that has been shattered by a decade of hyperinflation, but major donors have said they want Mugabe to show concrete signs of reform.
Human Rights Watch said yesterday that donors should withhold development aid until Zimbabwe improves its rights record by cracking down on violence on white-owned farms and ending police intimidation and arrests of activists.
"Humanitarian aid that focuses on the needs of Zimbabwe's most vulnerable should continue," said Georgette Gagnon, Africa director at the US-based group.
"But donor governments such as the UK should not release development aid until there are irreversible changes on human rights, the rule of law, and accountability," she said in a statement.
The unity government installed in February, after nearly a year of political turmoil stemming from disputed elections, has taken some steps to halt the economic collapse.
The local currency has been abandoned, after it was left worthless by astronomical levels of hyperinflation. Price controls and import restrictions have been lifted, meaning food has returned to store shelves.
But most Zimbabweans have no way of buying food. Unemployment is an estimated 94 percent and more than half the population depends on international food for survival.
Teachers and doctors returned to work only after the government promised to try to seek aid to improve salaries.
Teachers say their patience is wearing thin with their 100 dollar monthly salaries, and are threatening to strike from Monday unless they receive an increase.
"There has not been any concrete response to address the issue of teachers salaries," Tendai Chikowore, president of the Zimbabwe Teachers' Association told AFP.
In Tsvangirai's speech, he tried to reassure potential investors but offered no concrete measures to improve confidence. "The uncertain political climate over the past decade has created a negative image of the country internationally," Tsvangirai said.
"Restoring the rule of law is both a moral imperative and business necessity," he said.
"The rule of law is the catalyst that provides the foundation of confidence for contractual dealings and investor activity without which no economy can run effectively."
Deputy premier Arthur Mutambara has launched an investigation into violence on the farms, which were once the backbone of the economy but have devastated by Mugabe's chaotic land reforms.
So far Mutambara has not announced any steps to curb the violence.
Tsvangirai spoke at the launch of a trade fair meant to lure investors to Zimbabwe, but no major international firms are attending. Most of the foreign business leaders came from South Africa, with a few from China, Indonesia and Malaysia.