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Mass protests against the alleged "deployment of Russian troops" in Afghanistan
Mass protests against the alleged "deployment of Russian troops" in Afghanistan have been held in the Afghan city of Gardez, some 95 kms (60 miles) south of Kabul, national media reported on Tuesday.

The peaceful protests are said to have been triggered by an article in a Polish newspaper which said that Russia could join the International Security Assistance Force in Afghanistan in exchange for NATO denying membership of the military alliance to the former Soviet republics of Ukraine and Georgia.

"Russians are preparing not only to offer the alliance [NATO] their railways and airspace, but also their military base in Uzbekistan, which was used by the Soviet Army in the 1980s," the Gazeta Wyborcza newspaper wrote.

Afghanistan has of late seen increasing numbers of attacks by Taliban militants on NATO-led forces, with suicide bombings becoming a regular occurrence.

However, the first deputy press secretary of the Russian president, Dmitry Peskov, said on Tuesday in an interview with the Ekho Moskvy radio station that rumors of Russia sending troops to the country were 'absolutely untrue'.

Any return of Russian troops to Afghanistan would be certain to be greeted with open hostility from Afghans. The Soviet Union was involved in a bitter decade-long conflict in Afghanistan from 1979 to 1989. A million Afghan civilians and fighters are estimated to have lost their lives during the fighting. Some 15,000 Soviet soldiers also perished, and the return of Russian soldiers to the country would also be extremely unpopular in Russia.

According to local political analysts, the publication of the article in the Polish newspaper was intended for several purposes. Firstly, it distracts public attention from Holland and Denmark amid a wave of protests against the planned release of an 'anti-Islam' film and the reprint of controversial cartoons of the Prophet Muhammad, respectively.

It also creates an image of an external threat to the sovereignty and territorial integrity of Afghanistan in order to give a more plausible explanation for NATO's military presence in the country, analysts said.

Political analysts have also pointed out the fact that the protests were held almost immediately following the publication of the article. Around half of Afghanistan's population is illiterate, unable to read even in the official language of Afghanistan, let alone Polish. This, say the analysts, points to the 'planned' nature of the protests.

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