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Germans, Dutch start peacekeeping in Kabul

Tuesday, February 11, 2003

KABUL, Afghanistan -- Germany and the Netherlands took charge of the 22-nation peacekeeping force in the Afghan capital Monday, with its new commander vowing to maintain security just hours before a rocket slammed into the city's eastern edge.

The rocket landed a few hundred yards from a German peacekeeping base in Kabul, police chief Basir Salangi said. It wasn't immediately clear what the target was or who fired the rocket. No one was injured.

Rocket attacks on the war-ruined Afghan capital are not uncommon, highlighting the fragility of the relative calm the International Security Assistance Force has helped bring to the city.

The peacekeepers' new commander, German Lt. Gen. Norbert van Heyst, said the force will continue to work for security.

"Though the name and face of the commander of ISAF may change, ISAF's purpose and commitment will not," van Heyst said.

The peacekeeping force, which now numbers about 4,000 soldiers, was first deployed on the streets of Kabul in December 2001. Britain commanded the force until June, when Turkey took over.

With a line of peacekeepers holding flags from contributing countries behind him, outgoing Turkish commander Maj. Gen. Hilmi Akin Zorlu shook hands with van Heyst during the ceremony at a secondary school packed with troops and dignitaries.

Afghan President Hamid Karzai thanked the peacekeepers for their "major contribution" to the country.

"Your work is providing the common Afghan man with the security and safety in which he can send his children to school, where women go to work and earn money ... where life begins to function as life does in other parts of the world," Karzai said.

Karzai has in the past pressed for the peacekeeping force to be expanded outside the capital, but countries involved in the force have been reluctant. U.S. troops are in several parts of the country hunting for al-Qaida and Taliban fugitives.

Rockets were fired at two U.S. bases in eastern Afghanistan near the Pakistan border, but none hit their targets and there were no injuries, a U.S. military spokesman said Monday. The attacks took place Sunday evening in Paktika province, said Col. Roger King.

At Monday's ceremony, German Defense Minister Peter Struck, flanked by counterparts Henk Kamp of the Netherlands, Vecdi Gonul of Turkey and Mohammed Fahim of Afghanistan, said NATO could one day expand its role in Afghanistan and take full control of the multinational force.

"For the first time, NATO capabilities are being employed in Afghanistan -- perhaps an initial step to an extended NATO responsibility for this country," Struck said. Van Heyst said the NATO help included planning, communications and intelligence.

Struck has proposed that NATO take command in Afghanistan after the joint German-Dutch administration ends in six months, though he has said Spain or Canada could inherit the job if NATO doesn't.

Armed peacekeepers patrol the war-ruined city 24 hours a day in jeeps, armored cars and small tanks.

In December, Germany doubled to 2,500 its contingent in the peacekeeping force and extended its participation by a year. Troops from the Netherlands, serving under Dutch Gen. Robert Bertholee -- who is now deputy commander of the force -- will number about 700.

The Turkish contingent is to be reduced to about 160 men. Immediately after Monday's handover ceremony, a group of Turkish soldiers boarded a plane out of the country.

Fourteen peacekeepers have died on duty in Afghanistan since the United Nations created the force -- seven of them German soldiers killed in helicopter crash in Kabul on Dec. 21.

Eventually, the peacekeepers' duties are to be taken over by a newly created Afghan police and military units, but that is expected to be several years away.


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