Dutch to leave Afghanistan, PM says

The 1,600 Dutch soldiers in Afghanistan will probably leave this year, Prime Minister Jan Peter Balkenende said Sunday.

The 1,600 Dutch soldiers in Afghanistan will probably leave this year, Prime Minister Jan Peter Balkenende said Sunday.

The governing Dutch coalition collapsed Saturday over disputes about the date for the withdrawal of the soldiers.

NATO has asked the Netherlands to extend its commitment for a year past the August withdrawal date, but most of the 150 members of the legislature oppose keeping the troops in Afghanistan.

Balkenende announced that Labor was leaving the coalition he heads after a marathon cabinet meeting that ended early Saturday.

Labor wants the Dutch soldiers in Uruzgan province to leave in August, but  Balkenende's Christian Democratic Alliance disagreed.

Marjah offensive continues

Meanwhile, the coalition offensive in Marjah in Afghanistan's southern Helmand province is still trying to dislodge the Taliban from the city they control, eight days after the fighting began.

U.S. marines and Afghan units were squeezing an estimated 40 insurgents in the western quarter of the city on Sunday.

"It looks like they want to stay and fight but they can always drop their weapons and slip away. That's the nature of this war," said marine Lt.-Col. Brian Christmas.

Late last week, a top NATO official said it could take 30 days to secure Marjah and the Nad Ali district just north of the city of 80,000.

The coalition is aiming to clear the Taliban from the city and break their hold over the opium trade, which provides money for the insurgents.

Once the insurgents are driven out, the coalition wants to restore the Afghan government and restart public services to win over the population.

So far, 12 NATO soldiers and one Afghan soldier have been killed in the offensive. Coalition intelligence estimates at least 120 insurgents have died. 

Canadian forces are only lightly involved. A 34-soldier contingent is mentoring Afghan forces in the area.

With files from The Associated Press