KABUL - Nine security guards were killed and a Taliban rocket attack on a military base destroyed six armoured vehicles in Afghanistan on Monday, after another deadly weekend for foreign forces and civilians.
Insurgent violence showed no sign of letting up in the build up to a key NATO summit, where the continued presence of foreign forces in the country -- and the timetable for their withdrawal -- is likely to be high on the agenda.
The deadliest strike came when militants attacked a telecommunications tower in northern Kunduz province. Nine guards, an Afghan police officer and seven Taliban were killed, local police said.
Telephone antennae have become a target for the Taliban and other insurgents since the militant group banned mobile telephone communications at night in areas they control.
The rebels maintain that the Afghan security forces and their international backers in the 150,000-strong US-led NATO force track down militants using mobile phone signals.
Residents say that all mobile phones go down after dark in Kunduz, a troubled province where the Taliban have a strong presence.
NATO leaders gather in the Portuguese capital Lisbon on Friday for a two-day meeting that is likely to be dominated by the conflict in Afghanistan, amid calls for foreign troops to begin handing over security powers from next year.
There are indications that there is a growing recognition within the 28-member bloc that a full withdrawal is likely to come later rather than sooner, with the end of 2014 -- or beyond -- seen as more realistic.
But relations between Washington and Kabul are increasingly strained, with Afghan President Hamid Karzai warning at the weekend that the US military had to scale back operations and "intrusiveness" into everyday life or risk fuelling the Taliban insurgency.
The comments were met with dismay from US lawmakers and put Karzai squarely at odds with US and NATO commander General David Petraeus, who has made capturing and killing militants a key priority.
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Meanwhile, NATO's International Security Assistance Force (ISAF) said Monday that a forward operating base in the Asadabad district of eastern Kunar province received small arms fire and a round from a rocket-propelled grenade.
"The RPG struck a fuel bladder... The fire did destroy six MRAPs (mine-resistant armoured protected vehicles) and an ambulance," a spokesman told AFP.
No injuries or fatalities were reported, he added. The Taliban claimed responsibility.
Monday's attacks came after seven foreign service personnel were killed in eastern and southern Afghanistan on Sunday -- the worst day for coalition fatalities since October 14 when seven troops also died.
Three soldiers were also killed on Saturday, according to ISAF.
A total of 643 international troops have now died so far in 2010, the deadliest year for coalition forces in Afghanistan, according to an AFP tally based on that kept by the independent icasualties.org web site.
Police and civilians were also targeted over the weekend. Three officers were killed in a roadside bomb attack in southern Uruzgan province and 14 Afghan civilians lost their lives in a string of bomb blasts.
The worst happened on Sunday in a remote town in Kunduz, when a motorcycle packed with explosives went off in a market, killing 10, including three children. Eighteen people were injured.
ISAF said that one child died and another was injured when they were "inadvertently caught" in the crossfire when NATO and Afghan army troops were attacked in the Zhari district of Kandahar province on Saturday.
The United Nations says that civilians are paying a high price in the nine-year insurgency, with the number of those killed in the conflict up by a third in the first six months of 2010.