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Afghanistan holds translator tied to civilian torture allegations

By Hamid Shalizi

KABUL (Reuters) - Afghan intelligence agents arrested on Monday a U.S. special forces interpreter accused of torturing and killing civilians - allegations that have worsened already strained relations between the government and NATO-led coalition forces.

The detained man was identified by the National Directorate of Security (NDS) as Zakeria Kandahari, who has spent years working with U.S. forces who have been fighting Islamist Taliban insurgents for more than a decade.

The Afghan government has in the past said that Kandahari is Afghan-American, although his exact background remains unclear.

"A person named Zakeria Kandahari..., an interpreter with U.S. Special Forces accused of committing multiple crimes, was arrested," the NDS said in a brief statement.

The statement said Kandahari was taken into custody in the southern province of Kandahar with three pistols in his possession, as well as a computer, two fake birth certificates and seven fraudulent identification cards.

The abuse allegations prompted President Hamid Karzai in March to bar U.S. special forces from Wardak province, flanking Kabul - a potentially risky move because it could give Taliban insurgents more room to operate in a strategically vital area.

Karzai later agreed to a compromise with NATO forces entailing a more limited and gradual pullout from Wardak than he had initially demanded.

Atrocities against civilians have been a particular flashpoint in government-coalition relations since an American soldier was accused of murdering 16 civilians in Kandahar province in March last year, complicating negotiations on a U.S. military presence in the country beyond NATO's 2014 combat exit.

Both Kandahari, who was based in the restive Nerkh district of Wardak where the allegations surfaced earlier this year, and U.S. troops linked to him were accused by the government of committing human rights abuses, or at least having complicity.

But a U.S. defense official in Washington said a review in cooperation with Afghanistan's Defense Ministry and the NDS found no foreign forces involvement in atrocities.

(Editing by Rob Taylor and Mark Heinrich)

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