Nato urged to plan Afghanistan exit strategy as violence soars

Nato's fragile unity over Afghanistan has begun to crack ahead of an important summit - with one public call to discuss an exit strategy from the Allied forces' bloody confrontation with the Taliban.

While heads of government are to make a show of unity over Afghanistan at tomorrow's alliance summit in Riga, Belgium's Defence Minister has questioned the future of Nato's most important mission.

And heads of the alliance's 26 nations are unlikely to agree to send reinforcements to Afghanistan - dealing a blow to Tony Blair's hopes that others will take up more of the increasingly heavy burden.

In the bloodiest day of violence to grip the country in many weeks, a series of fierce clashes between Nato forces and Taliban fighters and a suicide bombing left 76 people dead and more than 45 injured yesterday, many of them children.

Though Belgium only makes a small military contribution to the Nato mission, the Minister's comments will alarm senior figures at the alliance's headquarters where there is already concern that France is getting cold feet about its role in Afghanistan. Paris has remained publicly committed to the mission but Nato sources are concerned about the possibility of an eventual French withdrawal. They are pressing for an enhanced UN profile in Afghanistan to reassure the French who are suspicious about an expanded role for Nato because of Washington's hold over the alliance.

André Flahaut, the Belgian Defence Minister, brought anxieties about the Afghan mission into the open when he suggested that, at the Riga summit, "we finally reflect on an exit strategy". Five years after the start of Western involvement in Afghanistan, Mr Flahaut calls into question its prospects of success.

In an interview with Le Vif-L'Express magazine, Mr Flahaut argued: "The situation is deteriorating and, over time, Nato forces risk appearing like an army of occupation." Discussions of an exit strategy are the last thing the Nato top brass wants to hear because it is hoping to use this week to reinforce a message of unity on Afghanistan.

The summit in Riga - the first to be held on ex-Soviet territory - will be attended by, among others, George Bush, Jacques Chirac and Tony Blair.

The rising violence in Afghanistan could be seen yesterday, with Nato reporting the loss of one soldier and 57 insurgents killed during four separate attacks in the south. Local people said at least 12 civilians died during an air strike.

Just hours after the fighting in Oruzgan province, a suicide bomber destroyed a restaurant in the Orgun district of Paktika. The blast is believed to have been aimed at an Afghan military commander but among the 25 dead and 20 injured were a number of children.

With 37 countries, including a host of non-Nato nations, contributing to the operation in Afghanistan a total of about 32,000 troops have been assembled .

In Riga, Nato is hoping for progress on one of the main problems facing commanders in the field: restrictions placed by national capitals on the use of their troops.

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