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By Jonathon Burch
KABUL (Reuters) - Swedish Foreign Minister Carl Bildt met Afghan President Hamid Karzai on Tuesday, aiming to mend ties between Kabul and the European Union strained by a fraud-tainted election and what Bildt called a "problematic phase."
Bildt, whose country holds the rotating EU presidency, was the most senior Western official to visit since Karzai's re-election was announced last week, despite a U.N.-backed probe finding more than a quarter of his votes were fake.
Bildt said he wanted to kickstart a new EU plan to boost economic development and curb corruption in Afghanistan.
"We want to strengthen and streamline our engagement, our support for the development of Afghanistan," he told reporters at a news conference in Kabul.
"We are of course now in a new situation after the problematic phase that has been here after the election. We need a new start," he said.
The souring of relations with the West has come at a particularly sore time, with U.S. President Barack Obama poised to decide whether to send tens of thousands more troops.
Bildt reiterated comments by European Commission President Jose Manuel Barroso, who said last week European nations were reluctant to contribute more troops.
"I can't judge troop numbers, but I think they are going to stay roughly the same," Bildt said.
There are around 35,000 soldiers from EU countries throughout Afghanistan. Sweden has about 500 soldiers stationed in a largely peaceful area in the north.
TACKLE CORRUPTION
Bildt was also to meet opposition leader Abdullah Abdullah, who was second in the August 20 poll but withdrew from a planned November 7 run-off citing fraud concerns, paving the way for Karzai to be declared the winner.
Karzai is due to be sworn in for his second term later this month, and a number of foreign dignitaries are expected to attend. The election has hurt Karzai's reputation among Western countries that have nearly 110,000 troops defending his government from a growing Taliban insurgency.
U.S., European and U.N. officials have said Karzai must do more to limit corruption and improve his government's performance in his next term. Kabul has complained about such remarks, describing them as inappropriate meddling.
In an interview with U.S. television at the weekend, Karzai said the practices of Western countries -- which spend billions of dollars in Afghanistan mainly through private contractors -- were partly to blame for corruption in Afghanistan.
Bildt said Afghanistan needed a representative state that was accountable to the people and not corrupt.
"We are here to support the peace building, the state building -- not the warlords. That is why we need to support the development of Afghanistan in this direction," he said.
Speaking alongside Bildt, Afghan Foreign Minister Rangeen Dadfar Spanta said corruption was a serious problem that needed to be tackled together with the international community.
"The Afghan government admits corruption is a serious problem. There will be new faces in Karzai's future cabinet ... who can respond to the needs of both the Afghan and international communities," Spanta said.
(Additional reporting by Peter Graff and Hamid Shalizi in KABUL, and Nick Vinocur in STOCKHOLM; Editing by Paul Tait)

Reuters