KABUL, Afghanistan (AP) – NATO troops assumed command today of military operations in volatile southern Afghanistan from the U.S.-led coalition, marking the first time the alliance has conducted land combat operations.

A NATO-led force, made up mostly of British, Canadian and Dutch troops, took over in the south from a U.S.-led anti-terror coalition that was first deployed nearly five years ago to unseat the hardline Taliban regime for harboring Osama bin Laden.

“Today’s transfer of authority demonstrates to the Afghan people that there is a strong commitment on the part of the international community to further extend security into the southern region’s provinces,” Lt. Gen. Karl Eikenberry, commander of U.S.-led coalition forces, said in a NATO statement.

The mission is considered the most dangerous and challenging in the Western alliance’s 57-year history. It coincides with the deadliest upsurge in fighting in Afghanistan since late 2001 that has killed hundreds of people – mostly militants – since May.

Coalition and Afghan troops killed 20 militants on Saturday in southern Uruzgan province, where some 1,500 Dutch troops have deployed. Another six insurgents were killed Sunday by Afghan forces in the southeast. Four militants died in separate explosions while planting bombs in southern Kandahar province.

The alliance’s 8,000-strong NATO deployment in the south includes some U.S. troops and will be under the command of British Lt. Gen. David Richards. Officials said Richards effectively becomes the first non-U.S. general to command American forces in combat operations.

“In one sense it is historical,” Richards told reporters Sunday before assuming command. “But also it is important for the world that Afghanistan is not allowed to be tipped back to its pre-9/11 state and allow a Taliban lookalike government with its sympathies to come back into power.”

NATO conducted aerial combat operations during the wars in Bosnia and Kosovo during the 1990s, but it has yet to conduct major ground combat operations since it was founded in 1949 as a deterrent against the Soviet bloc.

NATO already has troops in the more stable regions of Kabul and the north and west of Afghanistan. Most of the forces deployed to the south were moved into the region months back, but until now have operated under coalition command.

The U.S.-led coalition will continue to work in the unstable east of Afghanistan, where al-Qaida and Taliban fighters are also active.

Taliban-led insurgents have escalated roadside bombings and suicide attacks this year, and have also mounted brazen attacks on several small towns and district police stations – a tactic rarely seen in the previous four years.

NATO is hoping to bring a new strategy to dealing with the Taliban rebellion: establishing bases rather than chasing militants. It is also hoping to win the support of local people by creating secure zones where development can take place.

But questions remain whether they can quell the violence enough to allow aid workers to get to work in a lawless and impoverished region, where about a quarter of Afghanistan’s huge opium crop is grown, and the narcotics trade fuels the insurgency.

Another challenge for NATO will be to stem what Afghan and some Western officials say is cross-border infiltration of militants from neighboring Pakistan.

On a visit to Afghanistan on Sunday, French Defense Minister Michele Alliot-Marie said many Taliban fighters were crossing from Pakistan to stage attacks, and urged Pakistan to step up efforts to stop them.

Pakistan, a key U.S. ally in its war on terrorism, says it does all it can to patrol the porous Afghan border.

AP-ES-07-31-06 0009EDT

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