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General: NATO-Led Force Will Take Over Afghan Security by End of 2006

A top NATO commander says international peacekeeping troops under NATO command in Afghanistan will be ready to assume responsibility for security across all of Afghanistan by the end of next year. The statement comes as Italy has taken over command of the 8,000-strong International Security Assistance Force in Afghanistan for the next six months from Turkey.

The commander-in-chief of NATO forces in Northern Europe, General Gerhard Back, says the international peacekeeping force (ISAF) deployed in Afghanistan remains committed to providing support to the Afghan government and the election process in the country.

He was speaking to reporters in Kabul Thursday after the handover of the ISAF command from Turkey to Italy.

The international peacekeeping force plans to increase its size to take over security operations from the U.S. led anti-terror coalition battling militants in the south and southeast of Afghanistan.

The United States has long sought such a move, hoping it will free up many of its nearly 18,000 frontline troops to go after al-Qaida and Taleban militants in Afghanistan.

General Back says NATO's plans to expand security operations will mark an import step in terms of commitment and policy toward Afghanistan.

"We are also squaring up to NATO from the [U.S-led] coalition a much greater share of the responsibility of providing security support to the [Afghan] government," he said. "The aim is to take on this responsibility in the rest of the country, probably next year, first in the south and then in the east."

The NATO-led international security force already maintains security in Kabul and across parts of northern and western provinces in Afghanistan.

As elections scheduled for September draw near, there has been increased violence in the country by remnants of the Taleban and al-Qaida militants, particularly in the south and east.

General Back says that there is still much to be done to overcome forces posing a threat to stability in Afghanistan.

"While remnants of the militants continue to seek instability and chaos through fear and intimidation, the main threats to security are now the illegally armed groups, criminality and the all-prevailing narcotics trade," he added.

In another development, the United States and Afghanistan have agreed in principle to gradually transfer most Afghans in U.S custody to the Afghan government.

U.S.-led forces have captured scores of suspected Afghan terrorists in operations in the past three years.

A joint statement issued in Kabul Thursday said the government of Afghanistan will accept responsibility for the returning Afghan citizens and will work to ensure that they do not pose a continuing threat to Afghanistan and or foreign troops deployed there.