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Petraeus: no al-Qaida rise in Afghanistan

KABUL, Afghanistan -- The top commander of United States and NATO forces said Saturday that although some al-Qaida fighters have been searching for hide-outs in rugged areas of eastern Afghanistan, he did not think they were making a comeback inside the country.

"There is no question that al-Qaida has had a presence in Afghanistan and continues to have a presence -- generally assessed at less than 100 or so," Gen. David Petraeus told reporters at the coalition's headquarters in the Afghan capital.

But he added: "There certainly has been some exploration for potential safe havens or sanctuaries in very mountainous areas of Nuristan and parts of Kunar provinces. Our intention, with our Afghan partners, is to maintain pressure on those who are seeking to establish safe havens."

Earlier this week, The Wall Street Journal reported that during the past six to eight months, al-Qaida fighters have been setting up training camps, hide-outs and bases along Afghanistan's northeastern border with Pakistan. The newspaper cited U.S., Afghan and Taliban officials and quoted an unnamed senior U.S. military officer as saying "al-Qaida is coming back."

Petraeus said the recent deaths of seven UN workers in Mazar-e-Sharif in northern Afghanistan would not affect plans for Afghan security forces to start taking the lead for security in the provincial capital this summer.

As the weather has warmed, there has been an increase in violence. Anti-American sentiment has also risen over the burning of a Muslim holy book last month at a Florida church.

At least 21 people have been killed in the protests that started April 1 when a mob of angry Afghans attacked a UN compound in the northern city of Mazar-e-Sharif.

Three UN staff members and four Nepalese guards were killed in the attack.

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