Source AP ©

Two kidnapped Italians freed in Afghanistan

At least eight militants were killed in a clash when Italian Special Forces soldiers ambushed a two-vehicle convoy of militants and rescued two captive Italian military personnel in western Afghanistan early Monday.

Elsewhere, ambushes and gunbattles killed at least 28 other people, including 12 government employees and police, even as President Hamid Karzai said his government was working hard for peace talks with Taliban supporters amid the worst violence in six years. Two Spanish soldiers died in an explosion.

The two Italians, their Afghan driver and translator had been missing since Saturday when they were last seen at a police checkpoint in the Shindand district of Herat province, police said.

The Italians were "wounded in the gunbattle that took place when the kidnappers' convoy was intercepted," said Maj. Charles Anthony, a spokesman for the NATO force here. He said it wasn't clear if they were hit by bullets from their rescuers or the militants.

The Italians' Afghan translator was also wounded. Anthony hinted that their driver might have been complicit in the kidnappings and might have been killed in the rescue. "It's unclear what his status was or is," Anthony said.

Eight or nine hostage-takers were killed, he said; Earlier, Italy's Defense Ministry said five had been killed.

The Italian-led operation took place in a remote area of Farah province.

Afghan Army Gen. Jalandar Shah said Italian special forces rescued the two, whom he said had been beaten by their captors. Provincial police spokesman Baryalai Khan said Italian officials told him that nine people were captured in the raid, though Anthony said he did not think that was correct.

Defense Ministry undersecretary Giovanni Lorenzo Forcieri said a "criminal band" had taken the Italians. A Taliban spokesman told The Associated Press that its militants were not behind the kidnappings.

Italy's Defense Ministry called the two Italians "military personnel" and the country's foreign minister called them "Italian functionaries," raising the possibility the two work as intelligence agents or special forces.

The kidnappings of the Italians immediately prompted calls by a few Communist lawmakers for Italy to withdraw its 2,160-strong force in Afghanistan - calls rejected by other lawmakers.

The Afghan and Italian governments caused extensive controversy in March after five Taliban prisoners were freed in exchange for the release of a kidnapped Italian journalist - a step many observers feared would only encourage more kidnappings by militants.

Kidnappings are an increasingly common tactic used by insurgents in Afghanistan amid an upsurge in violence that has left more than 4,400 dead so far this year, most of them militants, according to an Associated Press tally of figures from Afghan and Western officials.

At the United Nations in New York, Karzai on Sunday said his government was working hard on peace talks to bring Taliban supporters "back to the fold" - part of a reconciliation process that has been shunned by the Islamic militia's leadership.

"We are already in contact ... with those Taliban who are not part of al-Qaida and terrorist networks, who are really in the majority ... and we would like to add to this process as the opportunity presents itself," Karzai said after a high-level meeting of the country's supporters and neighbors.

In more violence in Afghanistan, three unidentified gunmen opened fire on a vehicle in remote northeastern Badakhshan province on Sunday, killing seven unarmed police and five government employees, police chief Gen. Agha Noor Kemtuz said.

Militant attacks are relatively uncommon in northern Afghanistan, though the area has seen a handful of suicide bombings this year.

Meanwhile, two Spanish soldiers died and two others were seriously wounded Monday in western Afghanistan in a targeted explosion against the vehicle they were riding in, Spain's Defense Ministry said. An Iranian interpreter who was traveling with the Spaniards also died.

A NATO service member was shot Sunday in eastern Afghanistan, the alliance said in a statement. It gave no further details. The majority of foreign soldiers in the east are American.

In western Farah province, insurgents dressed in police uniforms ambushed a supply convoy escorted by private security guards on Sunday. The subsequent gunbattle left one guard and 12 militants dead, said provincial Gov. Muhaidin Baluch.

An Interior Ministry statement gave a higher death toll of 21 militants and three security guards killed. It was not possible to independently verify the reports.

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