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US looks beyond Afghan front line

Kabul, Aug. 25 (Reuters): A top US general suggested today the need for American-led military operations against militants in countries neighbouring Afghanistan.

General Tommy Franks, the head of the United States Central Command, said the US war on terror could not be limited to Afghanistan.

“The relationships that we have with surrounding states around Afghanistan will permit us over time to do the work that...all of us recognise needs to be done. It won’t be finished until it’s all done,” he told reporters.

Washington fears a significant number of Taliban and al Qaida fighters who survived the US air campaign and Afghan-led ground assault against them have escaped from Afghanistan into Pakistan or Iran.

US troops and special forces soldiers are scouring Afghanistan for pockets of resistance but believe their al Qaida and Taliban targets have successfully hidden themselves in the mountains, blended in with the local population or fled across Afghanistan’s porous borders.

Franks gave no details of the type of “relations” the United states has with Afghanistan’s neighbours, but not all are good.

The United States has named Iran as part of an “axis of evil” threatening global stability and has accused Tehran of meddling in Afghan politics to undermine US-backed President Hamid Karzai.

Pakistan has been a staunch ally of the United States’ campaign in Afghanistan but there would be fierce resistance among people along the often lawless Afghan-Pakistan border to the presence of substantial numbers of US soldiers.

The United States has tried to forge closer ties with the three former Soviet republics that also border Afghanistan to the north.

It had most success with Uzbekistan, where United States troops have been stationed during the campaign against the Taliban militia.

Tajikistan was used as a key supply line to the Northern Alliance which helped defeat the Taliban, while Turkmenistan kept its distance, putting neutrality ahead of closer ties with Washington.

Franks said Afghanistan, with the help of thousands of US-led troops and a Turkish-led multinational peacekeeping force of nearly 5,000 international soldiers in the capital Kabul, was gradually becoming more stable.

“The sense of stability, while not having arrived yet in Afghanistan, is moving in the right direction,” he said.

Franks supported calls to investigate allegations of war crimes by forces in the north of Afghanistan, despite their vital role in defeating the Taliban last year in the wake of the September 11 air attacks, blamed on the al Qaida network.

Karzai has sent a team to the north to look into reports that up to 1,000 prisoners suffocated in truck containers after surrendering to the forces of General Abdul Rashid Dostum.

The deaths came to light after the discovery of a suspected mass grave at Dasht-e-Leili outside Shiberghan, Dostum's main stronghold.

“I think our experience of operating in Afghanistan now for a bit more then 10 months is there have been a lot of stories on the street,” Franks said.

“I think in each case, the right thing to do is for people to go take a look...and then we’ll take the action that is appropriate after that.”

An investigation could have implications for the United States, whose special forces were said to be with Dostum at the time Taliban and al Qaida fighters were transported in the trucks.

Dostum’s aides acknowledged 200 Taliban may have died while in containers, but denied any deliberate slaughter.

They said most of those who died were already badly injured in the fighting.

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