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Italian Troops to See Afghan Deployment

March 5, 2003

BAGRAM, Afghanistan (AP) _ About 500 Italian troops will soon replace a similar number of American soldiers deployed in eastern Afghanistan’s volatile Khost region, U.S. and Italian military officials said Wednesday.

Around 1,000 Italian soldiers from Task Force Nibbio have already arrived at Bagram Air Base, the headquarters for coalition troops in Afghanistan, said Italian 1st Lt. Igor Piani, a spokesman for the troops.

About 500 Italians will stay at Bagram and the remaining 500 _ special forces soldiers, paratroopers and other soldiers specially trained in mountain warfare _ will take over in mid-March from Americans at Camp Salerno, a coalition base near the eastern town of Khost in Paktia province.

No specific date has been set for the handover, Piani said. The Italians would be deployed in Khost for a minimum of six months.

``They’ll be doing the same work that the Americans are doing now, patrolling near the (Pakistani) border,″ Piani told reporters at Bagram.

Between 500 to 1,000 U.S. troops are now based in the troubled region to hunt down al-Qaida and Taliban fugitives believed to be operating in the rugged hills and mountains.

The United States has been building up a force in the Persian Gulf in the event of a war against Iraq, but it is not expected to effect its troop commitment in Afghanistan, where there are only 8,000 U.S. soldiers out of a total coalition force that numbers around 13,000.

Maj. Robert Hepner, a public affairs officer at Bagram, said the American troops leaving Khost would remain in Afghanistan, and there would be no change in U.S. troop strength in the country.

``There’s not going to be a change in our numbers. We’re keeping the same number of Americans in Afghanistan,″ he said.

U.S. troops patrolling the province have been fired on by unidentified assailants and their base in Khost comes under rocket attack every few days. The rockets, however, are crude and rarely manage to hit their targets or cause casualties

Meanwhile, U.S. special forces found 96 rocket-propelled grenades, five rifles and ammunition after searching a compound Tuesday in the southeastern border town of Spin Boldak, Cramer said.

Near Bagram, paratroopers from the U.S. Army’s 82nd Airborne Division seized 132 82 mm mortar rounds, 34 pieces of unexploded ordnance and an unspecified number of anti-tank and anti-personnel mines.

Also Tuesday, a U.S. military vehicle struck a 4-year-old Afghan boy just west of the southern city of Kandahar, military spokeswoman Capt. Alayne Cramer said. The child suffered a severe head injury but was in stable condition at the Bagram base, Cramer said.

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