updated 12/18/2006 2:50:16 PM ET 2006-12-18T19:50:16

The Afghan government has fired the governor of its biggest drug-producing province, a center of Taliban resistance that has seen some of the country’s heaviest fighting this year, officials said Monday.

Helmand Gov. Mohammad Daud, who has led the province that grows more than a third of the world’s opium, was replaced over the weekend.

Opium production in Afghanistan this year rose 49 percent to 6,700 tons — enough to make about 670 tons of heroin. Helmand which makes up 42 percent of Afghanistan’s poppy crop, according to U.N. figures.

Interior Ministry spokesman Zemeri Bashary said the appointment of Asadullah Wafa would help increase security in Helmand, but insisted the increase in poppy cultivation had nothing to do with the change.

A Western official in Kabul said Daud, who had been governor for about a year, was a “high-integrity guy” and said media reports claiming the United States wanted him replaced were false. The official asked not to be named because of the sensitivity of the subject.

Wafa has previously served as the governor of Paktia and Kunar provinces, Bashary said.

France may send troops
The French defense minister, meanwhile, said France is willing to send its troops to Afghanistan’s violent south and east if requested.

NATO allies agreed last month to rush to one another’s aid anywhere in Afghanistan in emergencies. But key alliance nations including France, Germany, Italy and Spain have refused to send troops regularly to fight alongside the British, Canadian, Dutch and U.S. forces on the front lines of battles with the resurgent Taliban in the south and east.

French Defense Minister Michele Alliot-Marie — on her ninth trip to Afghanistan — said that “our forces in Kabul will be able to go to other regions at the request of our allies to help in a situation that necessitates it.”

She made her comments a day after announcing that France would withdraw its 200-strong special forces from the eastern city of Jalalabad.

2 soldiers hurt in failed suicide bombing
East of Kandahar city on Monday, a suicide bomber rammed his vehicle into a U.S.-led coalition convoy east of Kandahar city on Monday, wounding two soldiers, a statement said. Two vehicles also were damaged.

On Sunday, coalition troops called for airstrikes after clashing with suspected militants in Kandahar’s Sperwan Ghar district. The fighting left four insurgents dead and three soldiers wounded, the military said.

The military did not disclose the nationalities of the wounded soldiers, but most troops serving with the coalition are American.

While NATO took over command of some 32,800 personnel earlier this year, about 8,000 U.S. troops continue to work independently on anti-terror operations throughout the country.

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