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Afghan president accuses US forces of colluding with Taliban

Strained US-Afghan ties have suffered a fresh blow after newly appointed US defence secretary Chuck Hagel cancelled plans for his first joint news conference with the Afghan president, Hamid Karzai, the second reminder of serious tensions in a brief visit to Afghanistan.

US officials cited security concerns, but the decision came just hours after the Afghan leader accused America of colluding with the Taliban to keep foreign troops on Afghan soil. Afghan officials said the presidential palace, where the men planned to meet the press, was totally safe.

"It doesn't make any sense," said one Afghan official, who asked to remain anonymous because he was not authorised to discuss the sensitive issue. "It was supposed to take place at the palace, we don't see any security problems there."

US officials said the decision was taken because security concerns were raised, and only after consultations with the Afghan government.

But it was the second time in two days that US-Afghan tensions had been made public: on Saturday the planned handover of the final batch of Afghan prisoners held by US forces was also cancelled at the last minute.

Both of the planned displays of public trust and unity were called off in the wake of remarks by Karzai, although US and Afghan officials declined to comment on whether there was any connection with the subsequent halt of the transfer and cancellation of the press conference.

Earlier on Sunday Karzai had said that recent suicide bomb attacks in Kabul and Khost province, in which 17 people died, were a sign of shared Taliban and US efforts to justify a longterm foreign troop presence.

"The explosions in Kabul and Khost yesterday showed that they [the Taliban] are at the service of America," Karzai said in a nationally televised speech to mark International Women's Day. "They are trying to frighten us into thinking that if the foreigners are not in Afghanistan, we would be facing these sorts of incidents."

The top US and Nato commander in Afghanistan strongly denied any link with insurgents. "We have fought too hard over the past 12 years, we have shed too much blood over the last 12 years, to ever think that violence or instability would be to our advantage," General Joseph Dunford told journalists travelling with Hagel, the Associated Press reported.

Saturday's cancellation of the prisoner transfer came after Karzai told the opening of parliament that some of the men held by US forces were innocent and he would free them when they had been handed over.

US officials have said they have detained some prisoners based on classified intelligence they cannot share, but do not hold anyone without cause.

[Source: By Emma Graham-Harrison in Kabul, The Guardian, London, 10Mar13]

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