REFILE-UPDATE 4-Afghanistan's Karzai criticises U.S., exposing tension

Mirwais Harooni and Phil Stewart

(Corrects grammar in paragraph six)

KABUL, March 10 (Reuters) - Afghan President Hamid Karzai on

Sunday ratcheted up his criticism of Washington during a visit

of the U.S. defense secretary, underscoring tension between

allies struggling to stabilise the country ahead of a NATO troop

withdrawal.

Karzai accused the United States and the Taliban of

colluding to convince Afghans that foreign forces were needed to

maintain peace in the country beyond next year, when most

foreign combat forces are due to leave.

Then, his government alleged U.S.-led forces and Afghans

working with them were abusing and arresting university students

and urged them to stop.

Referring to two bomb attacks on Saturday that killed 17

people, Karzai said the blasts were aimed at convincing people

that the Taliban would return if U.S. forces withdrew.

"Those bombs ... were in the service of the Americans to

keep foreigners in Afghanistan longer, to keep them here,"

Karzai told a gathering to mark International Women's Day.

The Taliban have for years demanded the withdrawal of

foreign forces and have never suggested that they wanted them to

stay.

Karzai has a history of making inflammatory remarks,

particularly railing against the United States with which he has

an uneasy relationship.

The issue of U.S. troop levels after most U.S.-led NATO

combat troops withdraw by the end of 2014 will be one of the

main subjects on the agenda at talks between Karzai and U.S.

Defense Secretary Chuck Hagel, who is in Afghanistan to visit

U.S. troops.

A joint news conference that had been scheduled for them was

cancelled because of security worries, a U.S. official said.

Karzai also said the Taliban and the United States had been

holding talks in the Gulf Arab state of Qatar on a "daily

basis", but the militant group and Washington denied they had

resumed efforts on dialogue that stalled a year ago.

The U.S. government has said it remained committed to

political reconciliation involving talks with the Taliban but

progress would require agreement between the Afghan government

and the insurgents.

"This is simply incorrect," said a U.S. official, who

declined to be identified, when asked about Karzai's remarks

about the talks.

DEADLINE

The Taliban spokesman in Afghanistan, Zabihullah Mujahid,

also denied that negotiations with the United States had resumed

and said no progress had been made since they were suspended.

"The Taliban strongly rejects Karzai's comments," he said.

The Kabul government has been pushing hard to get the

Taliban to the negotiating table before foreign troops withdraw.

Afghan officials have not held direct talks with the

militants, who were toppled in 2001 and have proven resilient

after more than a decade of war with Western forces.

U.S. diplomats have been seeking to broaden exploratory

talks with the Taliban that began clandestinely in Germany in

late 2010 after the Taliban offered to open a representative

office in Qatar.

Regional power Pakistan indicated a few months ago that it

would support the peace process by releasing Afghan Taliban

detainees who may help promote the peace process. But there have

been no tangible signs the move advanced reconciliation.

Hagel arrived on Friday for his first trip abroad as defense

secretary.

His visit coincides with the passing of a deadline imposed

by Karzai for U.S. special forces to leave the province of

Wardak, after Karzai accused them of overseeing torture and

killings in the area.

U.S. forces have denied involvement in any abuses and it was

not clear if they were leaving Wardak by the deadline.

The Afghan government said in a statement the abuse and

detention of university students was a violation of sovereignty

and it called on U.S.-led forces to stop it.

The government said in a decree security forces and

university authorities had to stop foreign forces going in to

universities.

(Additional reporting by Hamid Shalizi; Writing by Michael

Georgy; Editing by Robert Birsel)