Source AP ©

Spain's military presence in Afghanistan increased

The day after two members of Spanish military contingent died in mine explosion its Parliament agreed Tuesday to send 52 military instructors to Afghanistan.

Despite the casualties Spain remains committed to helping rebuild post-Taliban Afghanistan, where it has 700 soldiers, and the instructors to train Afghan forces will further the cause, Defense Minister Jose Antonio Alonso told the legislature's defense affairs commission.

The panel later voted 34-1 to approve the new deployment. The vote against was from a small leftist party.

The conservative opposition has seized on the latest Spanish casualties to reopen a political debate on Spain's participation in the United Nations mission to Afghanistan amid a resurgence of Taliban attacks.

The conservatives are not calling for troops to come home, but want Prime Minister Jose Luis Rodriguez Zapatero and his ruling Socialists to state that Spanish troops are involved in outright war in Afghanistan, not a peacekeeping mission as the government insists.

"One of the things I find absolutely insulting is that Mr. Zapatero does not say we are in a war and all but argues that we are there as a relief organization," conservative Popular Party leader Mariano Rajoy said Monday.

The conservatives' spokesman on the defense panel, Fernando Lopez-Amor, said Tuesday the mission in Afghanistan has now exceeded the limits approved by Spain's Parliament.

"It should be the prime minister who explains to the full chamber what is being done in Afghanistan," he said.

The opposition is trying to turn the tables on the ruling Socialists, who denounced the Iraq war before coming to power in 2004 and brought home 1,300 Spanish troops sent there by their conservative predecessors.

Zapatero said after the Madrid train bombings of March 2004, which killed 191 people and wounded 1,800, that the conservatives' support for the U.S.-led war in Iraq while they were in power had raised the likelihood of an Islamic militant attack in Spain.

The government insists the international mission in Afghanistan is legitimate because it has a United Nations mandate and is aimed at peacekeeping.

Gaspar Llamazares, leader of the United Left party, said after Monday's attack in Afghanistan that the government should set a timetable for bringing Spanish troops home.

He said they are no longer serving the purpose for which they were sent - reconstruction and providing security. It was he who voted against Monday's bill.

Eighty-five of Spain's contingent in Afghanistan - first deployed by the conservatives in 2002 - have died, but only four of them in attacks.

The majority of the rest were in accidents: 62 died in a May 2003 crash of a military transport plane that went down in Turkey while bringing soldiers home from Afghanistan.

In August 2005, a Spanish helicopter crashed in western Afghanistan, killing 17 soldiers. The Socialist government ruled it an accident rather than an attack.

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