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Friday, 28 December, 2001, 23:46 GMT
Force for Afghanistan 'taking shape'
A Marine with local children, Kabul 22 December
Royal Marines have been in Kabul for more than a week
Military officials have yet to finalise the shape of the United Nations-backed peacekeeping force for Afghanistan after a third round of preparatory talks, the Ministry of Defence said on Friday.

Senior officials from some 16 nations willing to contribute to the force did not produce the anticipated binding agreement at their meeting in Britain.

It's really just a case of fine-tuning the military shape now, what short of shape the force will take when it's deployed

MoD spokeswoman

It was hoped that an announcement on the make-up and operational details of what is known as the International Security Assistance Force (ISAF) would be made on Friday or Saturday, following the one day conference at a secret location outside London.

That would have cleared the way for the deployment of the bulk of the 6,000-strong force within the next few weeks.

Instead, representatives are returning to their capitals over the weekend to consult with their governments before a final announcement, now expected early next week.

Finalise details

"It's really just a case of fine-tuning the military shape now, what short of shape the force will take when it's deployed," said an MoD spokeswoman.

"The conference went well, there was a good response from all the nations represented.

"Obviously parties that were involved will go back now to their respective governments and finalise details with them.

"Today was actually looking at who could contribute what, how many forces each nation can contribute, what sort of equipment.

"It's a mammoth task at hand trying to finalise all the details on this ... (but) we are in the process of making that agreement."

Royal Marines leave Bagram airport
Marines are helping secure Kabul for the new government

Sixteen countries attended the first two preparatory meetings earlier this month, including Canada, Denmark, France, Germany, Greece, Italy, Jordan, New Zealand, the Netherlands, Spain and Turkey.

All are believed to have turned up for Friday's talks.

The United States, which is not expected to contribute troops to the force but is set to provide air transport, was also thought to have been represented.

ISAF was authorised by the UN Security Council during last month's Bonn conference on the future of Afghanistan and should number between 3,000 and 5,000.

Representatives of the nation's ethnic groups also agreed to offer the force their co-operation.

The ISAF will be commanded by British Major General John McColl for at least three months and its initial task is to assist Afghanistan's interim government to maintain security in Kabul and surrounding areas.

Earlier in Kabul, a British embassy spokesman said no deal had been struck yet with the Afghan government on the deployment of the force, although talks were "going very well."

Potential UN contributors
New Zealand
Czech Republic

Meanwhile a German military spokesman said security problems at Bagram air base near Kabul had delayed an exploratory mission by a small group of German officers. They will not now arrive before Monday.

There are 500 British personnel already on the ground in Kabul, and the total UK contribution is expected to be about 1,500 troops drawn from HQ 3 (UK) Division, 16 Air Assault Brigade and 2nd Battalion, the Parachute Regiment.

A spearhead of around 200 UK troops - including Royal Marines of 40 Commando - have been in Kabul for the last week.

They have been patrolling the streets and provided an international presence at the 22 December inauguration of Hamid Karzai's interim government.

On Wednesday they were joined by a further 300 headquarters personnel and "enablers" with orders to prepare Kabul's international airport, Bagram, for the arrival of the main bulk of the force.

They are currently repairing landing strips damaged by US bombing and ensuring that all necessary support facilities are in place for the ISAF.

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