KABUL, June 23: Nato-led peacekeeping troops are poised to expand into northern Afghanistan within days following repeated calls from the government, the United Nations and aid agencies as resistance to occupation mounts, an official said on Wednesday.

The arrival of International Security Assistance Force (ISAF) troops to take over two civil-military bases in the north was "imminent", said the outgoing commander of the British-run base in Mazar-i-Sharif, Colonel Duncan Francis.

Nato forces would take over a provincial reconstruction team, which combines military strength with civilian expertise, in Mazar-i-Sharif and a second base still being built in the northern city of Meymaneh, he said.

"International confidence in the north is shown by the International Security Assistance Force's expansion into the area - taking over from the (US-led) Combined Forces Afghanistan Command - with the imminent arrival of Norwegian, Swedish, Finnish and Romanian forces," to run the Mazar team, Francis told reporters in Kabul.

The date for the transfer of command from the US-led coalition to Nato will "depend on the North Atlantic Council and an announcement by them," he said. "But as far as preparations on the ground in the north go... everything will be in place within the next week or so ready for transfer to ISAF."

On Tuesday the main umbrella group for humanitarian workers in Afghanistan urged Nato to implement its mandate and expand peacekeepers beyond their current stations in Kabul and northeastern Kunduz province as the security situation in the country has deteriorated.

In a letter signed by 54 aid groups, the Agency Coordinating Body for Afghan Relief urged Nato leaders meeting in Istanbul on June 28-29 to increase and expand their force here ahead of elections scheduled for September.

"The Istanbul conference may prove to be the last chance for the international community to face its obligations by devoting sufficient forces to guarantee security throughout Afghanistan," agency spokeswoman Barbara Stapleton said.

Afghanistan is due to hold historic democratic elections in September, but there are doubts that security will be adequate for free and fair voting given threats by Taliban militants to disrupt the polls, the sluggish disarmament process and logistical problems.

The 6,400-plus international peacekeepers, primarily Germans and Canadians, stationed in Kabul along with another 250 in Kunduz are expected to help with security for the polls.

The Nato troops are expected to be deployed to the northern regions while the 20,000-strong US-led coalition will continue to hunt Al-Qaeda, Taliban and other militants in the south.

The UN's special envoy to Afghanistan, Jean Arnault, said this week that with security volatile, more peacekeepers would be needed by late July if presidential and parliamentary elections were to be held as planned.

A spokeswoman for the force said that despite the fact Nato nations have yet to commit more troops, they could still meet the deadline. "It's not unforeseen that we could deploy new troops into that area by that time and have them operational," Major Rita LePage said.

Meanwhile, the peacekeeping force had recently been "projecting its influence" beyond the capital with patrols into Kabul province and the neighbouring provinces of Parwan to the north and Logar to the south, she said. -AFP


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