- Associated Press - Sunday, August 1, 2010

KABUL, Afghanistan (AP) — A minibus full of civilians struck a roadside bomb in southern Afghanistan early Sunday, and Afghan officials said six of those on board were killed.

Also Sunday, the last troops from the 1,600-member Dutch military contingent began to leave the country, marking an end to the Netherlands‘ four-year mission in the central province of Uruzgan. They will be replaced by American, Australian, Slovak and Singaporean forces.

German Army Brig. Gen. Josef Blotz, a NATO spokesman, told reporters Sunday in Kabul that the Dutch pullout did not show a weakening of the international coalition.

“The overall force posture of (NATO) and of the Afghan security forces is increasing,” Gen. Blotz said. However, the increase in NATO troops comes primarily from a surge of U.S. forces, who recently have taken over control of key areas in Helmand and Kandahar from British and Canadian forces.

Sunday’s blast in Kandahar hit a bus in the Maiwand district outside Kandahar city, according to provincial spokesman Zalmai Ayubi.

A NATO patrol arrived soon after the explosion and treated the wounded at the scene, the coalition command said.

U.S. and NATO forces are stepping up operations against the Taliban in Kandahar and nearby Helmand province. July was the deadliest month for U.S. forces in the nearly 9-year war, with 66 troops killed. Overall NATO deaths were highest in June, with 103 troops killed.

A NATO service member died Sunday after an insurgent attack in south, the coalition said in a statement. It did not provide further details.

The escalation in military operations also threatens more civilian casualties, potentially undermining support for the U.S.-led mission among Afghans as well as the public in troop-contributing nations.

At least 270 civilians were killed in the fighting in July, and nearly 600 wounded, Interior Ministry spokesman Zemeri Bashary said. That’s a 29 percent increase in civilian casualties from the previous month, he said.

In the Afghan capital, Kabul, more than 200 demonstrators marched toward the presidential palace to protest the alleged killing of 52 civilians by a NATO rocket strike in the south.

NATO repeatedly has disputed the allegations of civilian deaths, and Gen. Blotz said Sunday that a joint assessment team has only confirmed that one to three civilians may have been killed in the attack in Helmand province’s Sangin district.

Witnesses told the assessment team that six to eight people were killed, most of them insurgents, Gen. Blotz said. Aerial pictures of graves in the area before and after the July 23 incident showed only one grave site with a “small number of fresh graves,” Adm. Blotz said.

Yet the Afghans gathered in downtown Kabul said they were sure the international forces were to blame.

They carried photos of children allegedly killed or wounded in the strike and shouted: “Death to America! Death to NATO!”

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