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Sunday, August 20, 2006

Clashes kill 71 Taliban, 5 Afghan troops

KANDAHAR, Afghanistan - Afghan and NATO troops used rockets, planes and artillery in rolling battles with Taliban insurgents this weekend in Afghanistan's volatile south, leaving 71 militants and five Afghan soldiers dead in one of the bloodiest clashes since the 2001 U.S.-led invasion. A British soldier was killed in a separate attack.

The fierce fighting began late Saturday and continued into Sunday after the Taliban attacked a police convoy in Kandahar province's Panjwayi district, said Niaz Mohammad Sarhadi, the district government chief.

In the neighboring southern province of Helmand, a separate clash Sunday with insurgents left one British soldier dead and three others wounded, Britain's defense ministry said. The death brought to 20 the number of British soldiers killed since they deployed to Afghanistan in November 2001.

Militants also ambushed a police patrol in the western province of Farah, sparking a gunbattle that left one officer and two attackers dead, a regional governor said.

Afghanistan's southern provinces are bearing the brunt of the worst bout of violence since U.S.-led forces toppled the hard-line Taliban regime. Taliban holdouts and allied extremists have stepped up attacks in a bid to undermine the American-backed government of President Hamid Karzai.

In Panjwayi, NATO troops used artillery and aircraft to inflict "heavy casualties against Taliban fighters," an alliance statement said.

"It was a sizable engagement," said Toby Jackman, a NATO force spokesman. He called the clash part of an ongoing operation "to extend security" along the 260-mile highway between Kabul and Kandahar.

The bodies of 71 slain militants were found in three locations, scattered through orchards alongside their weapons, Sarhadi said.

"The police are still searching for more dead bodies of Taliban," he said.

Four police and one Afghan soldier were also killed in the clashes, officials said. Three police and five soldiers were wounded and three police were missing.

A purported Taliban spokesman, Qari Yousaf Ahmadi, claimed insurgents killed "scores" of police and damaged 10 police vehicles before a NATO airstrike. Ahmadi often contacts journalists to claim attacks for the Taliban, but his exact ties to the militia's leadership are unclear.

NATO took command of southern Afghanistan from the United States on July 31. The U.S.-led coalition is now focusing on its attention on eastern Afghanistan, where al-Qaida and Taliban are also active.

In the Farah province clash, attackers ambushed a highway police patrol, killing one officer before two attackers were shot dead, said Ghulam Dastagir Azad, the governor of neighboring Nimroz province. The ambush also left six officers and three attackers wounded, he said.

Azad referred to the attackers as "enemies" — a term usually used by Afghan officials to refer to the Taliban — but was unable to provide a motive for the ambush.

Farah has been relatively untouched by the spiraling violence in bordering southern provinces like Helmand and Nimroz. But officials say intense U.S. and NATO-led military operations in the south have pushed some militants further north into areas like Farah, where they have also started launching low-scale ambushes and bombings.

German Foreign Minister Frank-Walter Steinmeier, meanwhile, set off Sunday for a three-day trip to Afghanistan, where he planned to meet the country's leaders and visit German troops. Some 2,700 German troops are serving with NATO, mostly in northern Afghanistan.

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