Italy to provide 1,000 troops for Obama's surge in Afghanistan

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Italy will send around 1,000 additional soldiers to Afghanistan as part of US President Barack Obama's planned troop increase, the Italian Defence Minister, Ignazio La Russa, said in an interview published yesterday.

Responding to media reports that Italy would send 1,500 troops, La Russa told Corriere della Sera newspaper: "That is just a hypothesis, a maximum quota which we would never reach... We are below that figure."

He said an exact number would be agreed in the coming days at a meeting between Italy's Foreign Minister, Franco Frattini, and the US Secretary of State, Hillary Clinton. Asked if the actual figure was likely to be around 1,000, he replied: "Yes, I'd say so."

An aide to the defence minister said an increase of between 800 and 1,000 troops was being discussed, a level that would be reached in 2010 by withdrawing soldiers from peacekeeping missions in the Balkans and Lebanon.

On Tuesday, Obama unveiled a high-risk strategy to boost the US presence in Afghanistan by 30,000 troops, starting in two to three weeks. He promised to start bringing them home from mid-2011.

However, US allies with troops in Afghanistan have been reticent about committing reinforcements.

Italy has 2,795 troops there, compared with Britain's 9,000, Germany's 4,365 and France's 3,095.

The leader of the Northern League party, a key ally in Prime Minister Silvio Berlusconi's conservative coalition, has called for troops to be brought home.

Italy's participation in the Afghan force ran into controversy in October amid reports that the Italian secret service paid insurgents to keep the Sarobi area east of Kabul quiet while Italian forces were stationed there.

At least 22 Italian soldiers have died in Afghanistan, a fraction of the total coalition losses of 1,535.