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Suicide bombers kill 173 in Afghanistan this year; police kill 16 Taliban in south

KABUL, Afghanistan (AP) _ Suicide bombings have killed 173 people in Afghanistan this year, NATO announced Wednesday amid a sharp escalation of Taliban violence that saw 16 militants slain in southern clashes and an aid worker gunned down in the west.

A suicide attacker was the sole victim of a bombing inside a Sunni Muslim mosque in the city of Kandahar, while militants fired two rockets into the eastern city of Jalalabad ahead of a visit by President Hamid Karzai and Pakistani Prime Minister Shaukat Aziz. Police said there were no casualties.

NATO spokesman Maj. Luke Knittig said 151 of the year's suicide attack victims were Afghan civilians, including children, while the remainder included NATO and U.S.-led coalition forces and Afghan authorities.

Taliban-led militants in Afghanistan increasingly have been using Iraqi-style tactics, including suicide, car and roadside bombings, in a bid to topple the U.S.-backed Karzai government.

``Such blatant disregard for human life and potential undertaken by insurgents who callously ask to be called mujahedeen (holy warriors) cannot be more clear,'' Knittig told reporters in Kabul.

The release of the NATO tally follows a recent warning by the U.S. military that a suicide bombing cell in Kabul was plotting to attack foreign forces.

That warning came after a car bombing in the capital Friday killed at least 16 people, including two American soldiers, in the deadliest suicide attack in the city since U.S.-led forces toppled the Taliban in 2001 for sheltering Osama bin Laden.

Most of Afghanistan's surge in violence has taken place in volatile southern provinces, where some 8,000 NATO forces took military control from the U.S.-led coalition on Aug. 1. NATO commanders are calling for up to 2,500 more troops plus greater air support to crush the Taliban threat more quickly.

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 that began late Tuesday and continued into Wednesday. Two Taliban were arrested, one an area commander. Their comrades fled deeper into the mountains, leaving the bodies of dead militants behind, officials said.

Rassoul said he believed the militants were linked to a group that seized Garmser's district headquarters on Sept. 6 and held it for six days.

In Kandahar, a man detonated explosives concealed under his clothes inside the empty mud-brick Saidon Mosque following midday prayers, said policeman Jan Mohammed. The blast destroyed several rooms and walls in the building, but there were no other casualties. The motive for the explosion and the bomber's identity were unclear.

An aid worker with U.N.-Habitat, a United Nations organization dedicated to promoting adequate and sustainable housing, was killed on Tuesday when militants fired on his car as he drove from a remote village into the city of Farah, the capital of Farah province, said Maj. Gen. Sayed Agha Saqib, the provincial police chief.

The victim's identity was not immediately available and police did not speculate on the killers' motive.

Aid workers in remote parts of the country have been routinely targeted by militants trying to derail the U.S.-backed reconstruction of Afghanistan. Gunmen kidnapped a Colombian and two Afghans working with a French-funded non-governmental organization west of Kabul on Sunday. No news has surfaced on their whereabouts.

In the eastern Nangarhar province, where al-Qaida militants have long been active, two rockets were fired into the provincial capital of Jalalabad several hours before Karzai and Aziz arrived to open a road extension from the city to a border town.

One rocket landed just outside the airport in Jalalabad at 7 a.m. where the two leaders later landed and the other hit near a courthouse in the city, said Ghaffour Khan, spokesman for the provincial police chief.

``The enemy fired rockets to sabotage this event, but fortunately there were no casualties or damage,'' Khan told The Associated Press.

Tight security has been imposed throughout the city, with Afghan and U.S.-led coalition soldiers blocking streets and searching cars, Khan said.

Aziz was leading a delegation of several senior Pakistani government officials on a one-day visit.

Relations between Pakistan and Afghanistan have improved recently following years of strained ties, mainly over allegations by Afghan officials that remnants of their country's ousted Taliban regime are hiding in Pakistan. Pakistan has rejected such charges.

Pakistan President Gen. Pervez Musharraf and Karzai met in Kabul this month and pledged to jointly fight militants.

Pakistan was once a key Taliban supporter, but switched sides to become a U.S. ally in its campaign against terrorism following the Sept. 11, 2001, attacks.
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