Mortars hit near Afghan transition ceremony

Filed on July 19, 2011

MEHTAR LAM, Afghanistan A mortar attack on Tuesday marred the transition of responsibility from NATO to Afghan officials in Mehtar Lam, the second of seven areas due to be transferred this week.

Two mortar shells landed close to the town’s government office in the eastern Afghan province of Laghman where senior government ministers and Afghan and foreign commanders were attending the formal handover.

The transition process comes with Washington starting to lower troop numbers in Afghanistan as part of plans to recall 33,000 American troops by the end of next summer and put Afghans in charge of their country by the end of 2014.

Although NATO has said the transition process for each area could take up to two years to complete, there are fears about the capability of Afghan forces to take over with violence at record highs in a 10-year Taliban insurgency.

A spokesman for NATO’s International Security Assistance Force (ISAF) confirmed the mortar attack on Tuesday but said they were not aimed at the ceremony and that there were no reports of casualties.

“There were two reported indirect fire mortars at approximately 11:30 this morning,” said the spokesman. “We do not have any reports of ISAF casualties or damage with that incident.”

The Taliban claimed responsibility in a telephone call to AFP, but the provincial police chief denied the attack had happened.

“We don’t have any reports of such an incident. It has not happened. No rockets have landed anywhere,” said police chief Ghulam Aziz Zarani.

An AFP reporter said shops were closed in the city, deserted except for Afghan police and army patrols.

Mehtar Lam is a beacon of relative security in a region plagued by insurgent activity. Regular Taliban-linked attacks continue in the outlying areas of Laghman province and in neighbouring eastern provinces that border Pakistan.

Also in the eastern region, an ISAF soldier died in a bomb attack, the military said, bringing to 320 the number of foreign troops killed this year.

The Afghan national anthem was played and an Afghan flag raised in the low-key transition ceremony attended by Afghan army chief of staff General Sher Mohammad Karimi as well as NATO and local troops and ministry officials.

The interior ministry praised the transition.

“Following the process of transferring security responsibilities to Afghan forces, a ceremony was held today morning in Mehtar Lam city in the provincial government office of Laghman,” it said.

Deputy interior minister Abdul Rahman Rahman called it “a positive step towards self-sufficiency and accepting responsibility by Afghan forces”.

It was the second of seven areas to hand responsibility to national forces, in a process due to finish by the end of 2014, the deadline for the withdrawal of all foreign combat troops.

In Lashkar Gah, the capital of volatile southern Helmand province due to host its own ceremony on Wednesday, officials said seven policemen manning a checkpoint were fed poisonous food and later shot dead on Monday.

It said the attackers escaped with their weapons in vehicles.

“Investigations are ongoing regarding how the incident happened,” a provincial government statement said. In a separate incident, it said two civilians were kidnapped and killed by insurgents in the area.

NATO has also played down the significance of this week’s transition amid widespread concerns over the ability of Afghan security forces to ward off the Taliban, saying the process would be “conditions based” and closely monitored.

“(The government is) acknowledging that the international community is withdrawing gradually and they need to tidy up their own house and that’s what they’re doing,” a NATO official has said.

All foreign combat troops are due to leave Afghanistan by the end of 2014 and partial drawdowns are starting this summer.

There are currently around 150,000 foreign troops in Afghanistan, nearly 100,000 of whom are from the United States.

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