KABUL (AFP) – Taliban rebels freed a Lebanese hostage and two US soldiers were killed by a roadside bomb in southern Afghanistan, exactly one month before the country’s landmark parliamentary polls. Both incidents involved reconstruction projects, highlighting the threat that the former Islamic regime still poses to Afghanistan’s fragile road to democracy and its recovery from decades of war.The new US ambassador to Kabul pledged that the militants, who were ousted by American-led forces in late 2001, would not be allowed to disrupt the historic elections despite a rise in violence.The Taliban had threatened to kill hostage Safieddine Mohammad Rida, who was abducted on Sunday while working for a Lebanese company that sells diesel engines, if his employers did not pull out of Afghanistan. He was freed early Thursday and handed over to authorities in the southeastern province of Zabul, officials and the rebels themselves told AFP.It was unclear if the firm had yielded to the Taliban’s demands, although Lebanon‘s foreign ministry said Wednesday the firm’s owner had agreed with the hostage’s family that he was willing to withdraw from Afghanistan.Rida told the BBC his kidnappers had talked about a deal but he was unable to confirm it. “I am not sure what deal the company has made with the Taliban. I haven’t spoken to the company yet”, the BBC quoted him as saying.Afghanistan’s Interior Minister Ali Ahmed Jalali denied reports of a deal. “Nothing was paid. No deal was done,” he told reporters in Kabul.
Gulab Shah Alikhil, spokesman for the Zabul governor, also said the government had not been party to a deal but the company had been in talks with the Taliban. The Taliban neither confirmed nor denied any deal.

A number of foreigners have been abducted in Afghanistan during the last year, including three United Nations workers last October and an Italian aid worker earlier this year. All were freed unharmed.

The US military said two soldiers were killed and two wounded when a bomb hit their vehicle during a patrol of a road-building project north of Kandahar, the former stronghold of the Taliban.

“These terrorists are attacking the very forces working to improve Afghanistan,” said General Jack Sterling, deputy commander of US forces in the country. “It’s unconscionable that the Taliban would do something like this.”

The latest casualties brought to 69 the number of US soldiers killed in operations linked to Afghanistan this year, the deadliest yet for American-led forces.

Taliban militants have stepped up violence in the run-up to the elections. Nearly 1,000 people have died in militant-related violence so far this year, compared with 850 throughout all of 2004.

The US deaths were announced hours after new US envoy Ronald Neumann said the Taliban had “no chance” of derailing the polls.

“They will not stop the election, they will not even come close. When millions of people want to vote, they will go vote,” Neumann said in his first public appearance since taking up the post.

Separately, Afghan and US forces backed by American warplanes raided a Taliban stronghold in Kandahar province Wednesday, killing five members of the ousted militia, an Afghan general said.