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Bomb risk to U.S. troops heightened by contractor fraud

WASHINGTON (Reuters) - Investigators are warning U.S. commanders in Afghanistan about a heightened risk of attack because of shoddy work by an Afghan contractor paid hundreds of thousands of dollars to help strengthen defenses against Taliban bombings.

The U.S. Special Inspector General for Afghan Reconstruction, or SIGAR, said in a letter released Thursday that drains or pipes thought to have been sealed to prevent the Taliban from planting bombs were still accessible to the insurgents.

It wrote in the October 10 letter to top U.S. commanders, a redacted version of which was released to the media, that although one particular region was potentially exposed "we are concerned that this problem may be more widely spread throughout Afghanistan."

SIGAR did not name the contractor, but a SIGAR official said the contract was awarded in February 2011 for $361,680 and was meant to seal off 125 locations from potential placement of improvised explosive devices, or IEDs. SIGAR cited "potentially significant contract fraud."

IEDs are the Taliban's weapon of choice against NATO forces and are responsible for about 60 percent of injuries or deaths among NATO forces for over a year, according to data from the Joint Improvised Explosive Device Defeat Organization, the U.S. defense department agency working to counter the bombs.

Still, the number of killed or wounded between July and September of 2012 is down from the same period in 2009, JIEDDO said. Executed IED attacks fell by 14 percent in from January to August 2012, compared with the same period last year, according to data from the NATO-led forces in Afghanistan.

U.S. forces in Afghanistan declined comment on the investigation but noted that the irregularities with the contract were first reported by a U.S. Navy contract oversight officer - suggesting that the SIGAR's information might have already been known to coalition forces.

(Reporting by Phil Stewart; Editing by Cynthia Osterman)

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