By NOOR KHAN
The Associated Press
Thursday, May 18, 2006; 6:51 PM
KANDAHAR, Afghanistan -- Islamic militants, some armed with machine guns, battled Afghan, U.S. and Canadian forces and exploded two suicide car bombs Thursday, some of the deadliest violence in Afghanistan since the fall of the Taliban.
More than 100 people were killed in the string of attacks that started Wednesday: dozens of insurgents, at least 15 Afghan police, an American civilian training Afghan forces, and the first female Canadian soldier to die in combat.
The fighting concentrated in the southern provinces of Helmand and Kandahar raised new concerns for the future of Afghanistan's fragile democracy. The Taliban have stepped up attacks in recent months, with roadside bombs and suicide assaults, but this week's fighting marked an escalation in a region where the U.S.-led coalition is to cede control of security operations to NATO by July.
President Hamid Karzai said the violence emanated from the mountainous border trial regions of neighboring Pakistan, populated by the ethnic Pashtuns who make up the majority of the Taliban militants and are believed to be hiding Osama bin Laden.
"We have credible reports that inside Pakistan, in the madrassas, the mullahs and teachers are saying to their students: 'Go to Afghanistan for jihad. Burn the schools and clinics,'" Karzai said.
Pakistan's Foreign Ministry spokeswoman, Tasnim Aslam, called the allegations "baseless."
The violence started Wednesday in the small remote town of Musa Qala in Helmand, when an estimated 300-400 militants with assault rifles and machine guns attacked a police and government headquarters.
The attack sparked eight hours of clashes with Afghan security forces, the fiercest in Helmand since U.S.-led forces ousted the Taliban in 2001 for hosting al-Qaida, said Deputy Gov. Amir Mohammed Akhunzaba. He said the fighting started at 10 p.m. Wednesday, though the Interior Ministry put the time at earlier.
He said the bodies of about 40 Taliban militants were recovered and that 13 police were killed and six wounded in the fight, some 280 miles southwest of Kabul.
Afghan police reinforcements forced the militants to flee. British soldiers helped evacuate casualties but did not provide military backup, in part so Afghan forces could prove themselves, said British military spokesman Capt. Drew Gibson.
"If they're the ones who are seen beating off the Taliban, there's a lot of credibility for them," Gibson said. "The ANP (Afghan National Police) did admirably in the circumstances, proven by the fact that Musa Qala is now back under ANP security."
In neighboring Kandahar province, Canadian soldiers were supporting Afghan forces on a mission to oust Taliban fighters outside Kandahar city late Wednesday when militants attacked with rocket-propelled grenades and small-arms fire, Canadian military spokesman Maj. Scott Lundy said.
Those killed included 18 militants and Capt. Nichola Goddard. Although Canadian women died in action in both world wars, Goddard, from Calgary, Alberta, was the first killed in a combat role, Lundy said. About 35 militants were detained.
Also in Kandahar, the U.S.-led coalition said up to 27 Taliban militants were killed in an airstrike Thursday near the village of Azizi.
The deadliest fighting since the ouster of the Taliban was in June 2005, when 178 people were killed in an offensive between Afghan forces and militants in the Miana Shien district of Kandahar province.
As many as 87 Taliban fighters were killed in the fighting Wednesday and Thursday, U.S. and Afghan officials said. Commanders of the U.S.-led coalition were still studying whether the attacks across the south were coordinated, Lundy said.
Defense Ministry spokesman Gen. Zahir Azimi said the impending handover of power in the south to NATO troops could be fanning the southern violence.
"Maybe the Taliban is trying to show NATO that they are active there, but coalition and NATO forces are both strong," he said.
NATO plans to deploy thousands of extra troops from nations including Canada, Britain and the Netherlands to take control of security operations from the U.S.-led coalition, which has been hunting for Taliban and al-Qaida militants in the south since late 2001.
By the end of this year, NATO will also assume command in the volatile eastern region of Afghanistan, where U.S. forces will continue to operate but under the military alliance. But recent violence has been escalating beyond the south and the east, as militants expand their campaigns outside their bases along the Pakistan border.
One of Thursday's suicide bombers attacked in Herat, a city near the Iranian border not under Taliban control and until now spared much of this year's violence. The bomb killed Ron Zimmerman, 37, of Connersville, Ind., who was working on a U.S. project to train Afghan police, his family said.
U.S. Embassy spokesman Chris Harris said two other Americans were wounded. The blast incinerated the vehicle, which was flipped on its side. Heavily armed foreign security guards protected the scene, where a severed limb lay in the road.
Later at the site, American investigators and military personnel, fearing another suicide attack, shot and killed an Afghan driver who ran a checkpoint, the embassy said.
A second suicide car bomber attacked near the gates of an Afghan army base in Ghazni province, 70 miles south of Kabul, said Sher Alam, a government spokesman. The blast killed a civilian on a motorbike and wounded a pedestrian.
Also in Ghazni, militants ambushed two police patrols, killing two officers and wounding five, Alam said.
Associated Press writer Jason Straziuso in Kabul contributed to this report.