Berlusconi looking at Afghan exit plan after six soldiers die

Prime Minister Silvio Berlusconi has said that Italy is looking into reducing its presence in Afghanistan after six Italian soldiers died in a suicide bomb blast in Afghanistan.


AFP - Italy wants to cut troops in Afghanistan but only with agreement from its NATO partners, Prime Minister Silvio Berlusconi said Thursday, after six Italian soldiers were killed in a daring suicide attack.

"We are keen to bring our boys home as soon as possible," Berlusconi said as he arrived for a European Union summit in Brussels.

However, he added, "this is something that we cannot decide alone, because otherwise we would affect the confidence of other countries present there."

A massive suicide car bomb ripped into NATO vehicles killing six Italian soldiers and 10 Afghan civilians on Thursday in one of the deadliest attacks on Western troops in Kabul, officials said.

The bomber struck just after midday about 1.5 kilometres (one mile) from the US embassy on the busy airport road, destroying at least one vehicle of the NATO-led International Security Assistance Force (ISAF) in one of the worst attacks on NATO and US-led troops serving in Afghanistan.

"This is an unhappy day for Italy," the Italian leader told reporters. "We are all convinced that we have to get out of Afghanistan as soon as possible."

"We had foreseen a big reduction of in our presence and we are going to carry on in that sense," said Berlusconi after Umberto Bossi, head of Italy's anti-immigrant Northern League, urged the government to "bring them all home for Christmas."

The presence of so many Italian troops in Afghanistan has become increasingly controversial in Italy and has placed a major strain on Berlusconi's governing right-wing coalition.

A demonstration in Italy against Berlusconi's hold over the media scheduled for Saturday was also cancelled.

In Rome, Defence Minister Ignazio La Russa called the perpetrators "cowardly and despicable attackers" but promised that "they will not stop us and that our mission will continue."

Foreign Minister Franco Frattini also pledged that Italy would continue to be a part of the NATO force in Afghanistan where it has some 3,250 troops.

"The Italian soldiers paid a high price for the  freedom and security of Afghanistan, Italy and Europe and we must stay in that country," he said.

But Frattini acknowledged that more work was needed to win over support from ordinary Afghan people.

"We must work harder to win the hearts of the Afghans, those we consider our allies, so as to isolate the terrorists."

Italy's lower house of parliament held a one-minute silence in memory of the soldiers while Prime Minister Silvio Berlusconi addressed condolences to their families.

Pope Benedict XVI was said to be saddened by the "horrible" attack in Kabul that also killed 10 Afghan civilians, his spokesman said.

"The pope expresses his sorrow, prays for the victims, and sends his thoughts to the families of the wounded and all people affected by this horrible attack," spokesman Father Federico Lombardi told AFP.

"Let efforts for peace continue, despite this terrible violence," he added.

Three other Italian soldiers were also wounded in the attack on two armoured vehicles about 1.5 kilometres (one mile) from the US embassy gates on the busy airport road.

The deaths bring to 21 the number of Italian troops who have died in the country since 2004.

Italy's National Olympic Committee said a minute of silence would be observed at weekend football matches in mourning for the dead.

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