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Karzai, Petraeus Visit Volatile South Afghanistan

Afghan President Hamid Karzai, second from right, is met by his half brother Ahmad Wali Karzai, left, in Argandab district of Kandahar province, south of Kabul, 09 Oct 2010

Afghan President Hamid Karzai, accompanied by top U.S. military and civilian leaders, has visited the volatile Taliban stronghold of Kandahar, where he urged tribal leaders to help protect their villages, and he called on insurgents to lay down their arms.

Mr. Karzai flew to southern Kandahar province on Saturday with the top commander of U.S. and NATO forces in Afghanistan, General David Petraeus, along with U.S. Ambassador Karl Eikenberry and top Afghan security officials.

He was briefed by Afghan and U.S. generals in Arghandab (district headquarters) on a major operation by coalition forces against the Taliban. Then, he addressed more than 200 tribal elders, seeking their support for his government's effort to extend its influence beyond Kabul. The Afghan president rarely travels to the provinces.

Mr. Karzai is from Kandahar, the heartland of the nine-year Taliban insurgency and one of the most dangerous parts of the country. He asked local residents to send their sons to the local security forces, and he encouraged people to educate their children, preparing them for critically needed government positions.

The elders told him rural areas need increased security and economic development.

NATO and Afghan troops are trying to drive the Taliban out of its southern stronghold with a military offensive called Operation Dragon Strike.

In another development, British Foreign Secretary William Hague said a British aid worker kidnapped in Afghanistan was killed by her captors during a rescue attempt. Linda Norgrove and three Afghan colleagues were abducted September 26 in the eastern province of Kunar.

Hague expressed "deep sadness" for Norgrove's death Saturday, saying responsibility "rests squarely with the hostage takers." General Petraeus said Afghan and coalition forces "did everything in their power to rescue" her. The 36-year-old Norgrove headed a project for the U.S. government's development arm (USAID).

Also, a spokesman for Italy's Defense Ministry, General Massimo Fogari, said four Italian troops were killed early Saturday and another wounded in an attack in western Afghanistan. He said the soldiers' convoy was first struck by a roadside bomb, before insurgents attacked with gunfire.

Italian Prime Minister Silvio Berlusconi said he was saddened by the "tragic ambush." Foreign Minister Franco Frattini said Italy wants to speed up the transfer of security responsibilities in Afghanistan to that country's armed forces. Italy has about 3,400 soldiers in Afghanistan, deployed mostly in the west.

Some information for this report was provided by AP and Reuters.