KABUL (AFP) - The United States and Kabul appeared Wednesday to reach an agreement on the pullout of coalition forces from a strategic province, nearly a month after an ultimatum from Afghan President Hamid Karzai.

Karzai on February 24 gave American special forces two weeks to leave Wardak, a hotbed of Taliban activity on the doorstep of Kabul, accusing Afghans they work with of torture and murder that has incited local hatred.

The issue has been a source of rising tensions between Kabul and the United States with a series of astonishing outbursts against the international coalition from Karzai’s palace in recent weeks.

Just hours before the agreement was announced by the US-led International Security Assistance Force (ISAF), the presidency branded the Nato-led military operation in the country “aimless and unwise”.

“I am pleased to announce that following a very constructive series of talks... we have come to agreement on a plan for Wardak,” said General Joseph Dunford, the US commander of ISAF, following talks with Karzai.

ISAF said that Afghan forces would “soon” move into the district of Nerkh, which “will preclude” the need for Afghan Local Police and coalition forces to remain in the area.

Nerkh is one of eight districts in Wardak. The statement said the “remainder of the province will transition over time” but no dates were announced.

Dawlat Waziri, a spokesman for the defence ministry, told AFP that US special forces would leave Nerkh “within a few days” but declined to provide any details. The agreement will be seen as a compromise for Karzai. The US military said it found no evidence to back the allegations that Afghan militia working with US forces had tortured and murdered civilians.

Neither did the statement make any specific mention of US special forces.

Relations between Karzai and Washington have become increasingly troubled with the bulk of Nato’s 100,000 combat soldiers due to leave by the end of next year. But a deputy spokesman for Karzai welcomed the agreement.

“This has been the true demand of Afghan people and president. We welcome the agreement and we expect that it will be finalised as agreed,” Adela Raz told AFP.

Meanwhile, a 29-year-old Polish soldier died when a mine exploded on a road in southeastern Afghanistan on Wednesday, Poland’s defence ministry said.

Pawel Ordynski, whose vehicle struck the mine in the province of Ghazni, is the 39th Pole to die in a decade of conflict in Afghanistan, ministry spokesman Jacek Sonta said.

Poland has 1,800 troops serving in Afghanistan with Nato’s International Security Assistance Force (ISAF), making it one of the main contributors to the 100,000-strong mission.

The Polish unit, deployed there since 2002, is currently responsible for security in Ghazni. Polish Foreign Minister Radoslaw Sikorski told parliament on Wednesday that Poland would downsize its Afghanistan troops to 1,000 soldiers in October. International coalition forces are to exit Afghanistan by the end of next year, leaving local forces to take on fighting the Taliban alone.

One other Polish soldier has died in Afghanistan this year, killed in January during a joint counter-terrorism operation with Afghan forces.

Meanwhile, at least four people were shot dead Wednesday when dozens of Afghan villagers clashed with police over the alleged desecration of the holy Quran, officials said.

The clashes broke out in Musa Qala, a town troubled by insurgent violence in the southern province of Helmand. “Four people have been killed and seven others, including two policemen, have been shot and injured in the clash,” said provincial spokesman Ahmad Zeerak.

He told AFP it was unclear whether police bullets caused the casualties and said officers had been forced to intervene after “Taliban fighters hiding among the protesters opened fire on police first”. Helmand has been the scene of some of the worst fighting between Nato troops and the Taliban since the 2001 US-led invasion which ousted the militants from power nationally.

Local villagers told AFP that a man in police uniform set fire to copies of the holy Quran which had been pulled from the shelves of a local mosque.

Local official Mohammad Ismail Hotak said a suspect, who had disguised himself as a police officer, had been detained for questioning.

“We have a suspect in custody who allegedly went to a mosque last night while wearing a police uniform and desecrated the holy Quran, but our initial information shows he is a member of the Taliban posing as a police,” the official said.

Officials denied that any copy of the holy Quran had been burned.