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Afghan president welcomes Security Council vote to expand peace
KABUL, Afghanistan -- The Afghan president on Tuesday hailed a U.N. vote allowing an international peacekeeping force to expand beyond the capital, a crucial boost for Afghan efforts to rein in warlords and prepare for historic elections next year.
The 15-member U.N. Security Council voted unanimously late Monday to allow the 5,500-strong force to fan out to key cities in some of Afghanistan's most lawless provinces, where feuding warlords hold sway and Taliban rebels are engaging in an ever-fiercer insurgency.
The International Security Assistance Force is under NATO command, with Germany and Canada supplying the most troops.
"This is what the Afghan people have been asking for since the beginning of the interim administration and I'm glad that the voice of Afghans for better security has been heard by the international community," President Hamid Karzai said Tuesday in a statement.
Afghanistan is moving toward its first national elections in years, with a vote scheduled for June.
Officials acknowledge that improving security nationwide is critical for the vote to succeed.
Still, the speed and scope of the ISAF expansion was unclear, and there has not been any official word on how many additional troops might be involved. Very few countries have offered soldiers for the expansion.
Germany's U.N. ambassador, Gunter Pleuger, said his country will seek parliamentary approval for to deploy up to 450 German troops in the northern Afghan city of Kunduz. The area is relatively peaceful compared with southern and eastern regions, where insurgents have targeted aid workers, Afghan officials and soldiers, and U.S. troops.
Pleuger said two weeks ago the expanded force would deploy international troops to eight urban "islands," including Herat in the west, Kandahar in the south and Kunduz and Mazar-e-Sharif in the north.
Mazar-e-Sharif has been the scene in recent days of intense fighting between two rival warlords -- both nominally loyal to the government -- and residents say they desperately need international forces to restore order.
Provincial officials were quick to lobby for an ISAF presence in their own regions.
Abdul Hamid Balkhi, the intelligence chief in Kunduz, said the people of his area were "desperately waiting for this decision."
"We are ready to cooperate with our German brothers," he told The Associated Press.
Sadokhan Ambarkhil, the deputy governor of southeastern Paktika province, said his area was in more desperate need than those in Kunduz.
"It is good that they are going to Kunduz, but we urgently need them here in Paktika," he said. "The fire is raging more in the homes of the Paktika people than it is in Kunduz, and al-Qaida and Taliban are more active here. We need them as soon as possible."
Paktika has been the scene of near-daily Taliban attacks, and a U.S. soldier was killed in the province late last month. The area borders Pakistan, and al-Qaida and Taliban fighters are believed to be hiding out in the mountains straddling the two countries.
The Foreign Ministry's Samad said the Karzai government was thankful for the peacekeeper commitment and confident the force would be expanded over time to fill Afghanistan's considerable security needs.
"It does not mean that overnight you will see 10,000 peacekeepers fan out across the country, but you will see on expansion on a per need basis," he said.