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German, Afghan Leaders Stand Up To Kidnappers' Demands --> President Karzai (left) with Chancellor Merkel today (epa) March 19, 2007 (RFE/RL) -- Afghan President Hamid Karzai was in Berlin today for talks with German Chancellor Angela Merkel about the security situation in Afghanistan.

Merkel said she told Karzai she will not give in to demands by Islamic militants who have threatened to kill two abducted Germans in Iraq unless Berlin withdraws its troops from Afghanistan.

"The crisis staff is working in high gear to secure the lives of the hostages," Merkel said. "I must say that we are deeply concerned. On the other the German government has always said -- and we find support in this from the Afghan president -- the German government cannot be blackmailed."

The abductors have said they will kill the two Germans unless Berlin withdraws all of its troops from Afghanistan by March 20.

That threat -- contained in a video posted on the Internet -- was accompanied by the release of a separate Islamic militant video vowing attacks on Germany and Austria unless they pull their forces out of Afghanistan.

Karzai Thanks Germany For Support

Germany opposed the U.S.-led invasion of Iraq and has not had any troops in that country. But there are about 3,000 German soldiers serving in Afghanistan under the UN-mandate of the NATO-led International Security Assistance Force. Most German troops are in the relatively calm northern part of the country.

Karzai today praised the work of German soldiers in Afghanistan and thanked Berlin for contributing troops, saying he hopes there will be more in the future.

"The expansion of the German role in Afghanistan is a German decision," he said. "The Afghan people will welcome any decision that the people of Germany will make with regard to their participation in Afghan reconstruction and security."

Karzai also thanked German lawmakers for their decision to send six Tornado reconnaissance aircraft to Afghanistan in response to a NATO request for more intelligence-gathering equipment.

"The significance is because it provides the Afghan people with a psychological guarantee of protection and security in that part of the world, in the region," Karzai said. "So, it is more than the tactical issues. It is providing Afghanistan with an environment in which they feel safe and secure."

Karzai told reporters after today's talks that he agrees with Merkel's decision not to give in to what he called "blackmail and terror." Karzai said meeting the demands of the abductors would merely encourage more kidnappings and terror attacks in the future.

Hope For Release Of Italian Journalist

Daniele Mastrogiacomo (epa file photo)

Afghan Foreign Minister Rangin Dadfar Spanta, who is accompanying Karzai on his visit, told Germany's ARD television station today that a German withdrawal would be disastrous for Afghanistan at a time when it is facing a renewed Taliban insurgency.

Meanwhile, Karzai says Daniele Mastrogiacomo, an Italian journalist kidnapped in Afghanistan's Helmand Province on March 4, could be released as soon as today.

"I hope the matter is resolved today," Karzai said. "He should either be freed by now or should be in the process of being freed. We did what we could to help with the release of the Italian journalist."

Earlier reports said the Taliban already had handed Mastrogiacomo over to a third party. The Italian Foreign Ministry later confirmed the release.

Mastrogiacomo reportedly was handed over to Italian Embassy officials in Kabul today. He was abducted in Helmand Province on March 4 along with his Afghan driver and an Afghan translator. The Taliban said it killed Mastrogiacomo's driver on March 16.

Merkel also said she and Karzai today discussed Afghanistan's relationship with Pakistan -- which is under growing criticism for failing to stop militants from operating near the Afghan border.

Merkel said that despite the criticism of Islamabad, Pakistan appears to be "committed to a peaceful future."

Karzai was to travel later today to France, where he plans to meet President Jacques Chirac. France currently has about 1,100 troops in Afghanistan.

RFE/RL Afghanistan Report

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