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Afghan troops free kidnapped U.N. workers

KABUL, Afghanistan — Troops stormed a Taliban compound Monday and freed five Afghan U.N. staffers who had been held hostage for a month, an operation that left two soldiers and several insurgents dead.

The head of Afghan army troops in the north, Gen. Murad Ali Murad, said his troops surrounded the compound in northern Baghlan province and freed the workers who were being held in the basement. He said the freed workers appeared healthy.

U.N. officials in Kabul confirmed that their staffers had been freed but did not provide further details. They had been missing since April 15 when their vehicles were hijacked in Baghlan, which has seen increasing Taliban activity over the past year.

Murad said two of his soldiers were killed in the fighting, along with "tens of insurgents."

Kidnappings have become an increasing problem in Afghanistan amid prevailing lawlessness and as the insurgency has strengthened, even as thousands of new U.S. forces have arrived to combat the Taliban.

On Sunday, militants shot and killed a prominent Muslim cleric, Rahman Gul. His brother and a relative also died in the ambush as the three returned to their homes in the Chapa Dara district of the eastern province of Kunar, the Interior Ministry and provincial police chief Gen. Khalilullah Zaiyie said.

In recent days, Gul, the chief of the district clerical council, had stressed the importance of "peace and stability" across Afghanistan. No one claimed responsibility, but insurgents are known to target those who oppose their extreme, militant interpretation of Islam.

The shooting capped a weekend of roadside bombings, assassination, militant attacks and suicide blasts across the country as part of an expected springtime spike in insurgent violence.

On Monday, Italy's Foreign Ministry said two Italian soldiers in the NATO mission were killed by a roadside bomb while riding in a convoy near the western city of Herat. Two other soldiers were wounded.

The United States said one of its service members died in a bomb attack in the south on Monday, and NATO said another of its service members died in a separate bombing in the west. No other details were immediately available.

At least 26 NATO troops, including 16 U.S. service members, have been killed so far this month across Afghanistan, many in the south where NATO troops are moving in as part of a stepped-up security operation in Kandahar, the birthplace of the Taliban movement.

Also Monday

• Afghan military investigators have accused Ahmed Wali Karzai, U.S.-backed President Hamid Karzai's controversial half-brother, of intervening to protect powerful allies who are squatting illegally on government property in southern Afghanistan. In response, Ahmed Wali Karzai shut down the Kandahar legislature this week by refusing to lead the provincial council until he can clear his name.

• Dense fog hindered rescuers who fanned out across mountainous terrain to search for the wreckage of an Afghan passenger plane that vanished with 44 passengers on board. There was no immediate word of casualties.

Afghan troops free kidnapped U.N. workers 05/18/10 [Last modified: Tuesday, May 18, 2010 12:10am]

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