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By Dylan Welch

MAIDAN SHAH, Afghanistan (Reuters) - An Afghan army colonel has been arrested by the government for illegally handing over prisoners to a man working with a U.S. special forces team that was accused of torture and killings, three sources have told Reuters.

The rare arrest of a senior military officer underlines the resolve of Kabul in cracking down on excesses in the 12-year-long civil war ahead of an election next year.

It also plays into government efforts to distance itself from the West as it woos Taliban insurgents to join peace talks ahead of the withdrawal of international combat troops in 2014.

Reports earlier this year that villagers detained by security forces in the Nerkh district of Wardak province were being tortured or killed led to a serious rupture between Afghan authorities and the U.S.-led multinational force. Afghan President Hamid Karzai later ordered all Western troops out of Nerkh.

A senior Afghan government official in Kabul and two officials with international organizations said the colonel, who was based in Wardak, had admitted to handing over several prisoners to a man known as Zakeria Kandahari, a shadowy figure who has spent years working with U.S. forces.

All three sources have access to investigations into the case but spoke on condition of anonymity due to the sensitive nature of the subject.

Both Kandahari, who was based in Nerkh, and the U.S. troops there are accused by the Afghan government of committing human rights abuses or complicity.

Kandahari has not been seen in public since early January, according to people in the area and several officials said his name was likely to be an alias. It was not possible to obtain the colonel's name or contact his family or a lawyer representing him.

A senior U.S. military official and the senior Afghan official based in Kabul said Kandahari was working with or for the Americans at the time the prisoners were handed over to him. The senior U.S. official told Reuters Kandahari had no official status with U.S. forces in Wardak.

"This colonel was handing over detainees to Kandahari, thinking that Kandahari worked for the (U.S.) special forces and they had the authority to question any detainee," the Afghan official said.

"This was irresponsible and that's why (the colonel) was himself detained and is being investigated," he said.

When asked, spokesmen and officials at the Afghan ministry of defense and the national directorate of security, the country's main intelligence agency, said they could not confirm the colonel's arrest.

U.S. Lieutenant Colonel Tom Bryant, a spokesman for a multinational special forces command in Afghanistan, refused to comment directly on the arrest of the Afghan army colonel. A spokesman for the NATO-led International Security Assistance Force (ISAF) in Afghanistan, to which the special forces unit in Nerkh did not report, also refused comment.

U.S. military officials have consistently denied that the U.S. special forces team in Nerkh participated in or turned a blind eye to torture and illegal killings by Afghans working with them.

Bryant said three separate investigations were conducted concerning allegations of misconduct by the special forces team.

"A thorough review of these allegations, in cooperation with Afghan authorities, confirmed that no coalition forces were involved in the alleged misconduct," Bryant said.

The arrest of the colonel comes after the bodies of three men detained in joint U.S. and Afghan raids since November were found close to the COP Nerkh military base Last month.

Reuters has seen a list compiled by the ministry of defense of 18 men alleged to have been detained in Nerkh. The three men whose bodies were found were among 10 listed as missing, villagers and local officials said. The other eight were listed as dead.

It is unclear if any of the 18 men on the ministry of defense list were among those handed over by the colonel to Kandahari.

(Editing by Raju Gopalakrishnan and John Chalmers)

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