Dozens Are Killed In Afghan Fighting

By Pamela Constable
Washington Post Foreign Service
Tuesday, May 23, 2006

BAGRAM, Afghanistan, May 22 -- As many as 80 Taliban fighters and 16 civilians were reported killed early Monday by U.S.-led forces attacking from the ground and air in Kandahar province, the epicenter of a broadening swath of fighting in southern Afghanistan.

The clash -- part of the bloodiest surge of combat since the U.S.-led military ouster of Taliban rule in late 2001 -- raised the death toll from attacks across the country since Wednesday to almost 250. The fighting has included the torching of a district headquarters in Helmand province and a suicide bombing outside Kabul, the capital.

U.S. military commanders and the Afghan government are expressing new concerns about the strength and determination of the revived Taliban movement, whose purported spokesman, Mohammed Hanif, vowed two weeks ago that "our sacred land is going to turn into an inferno" unless international military forces withdraw from Afghanistan.

The country's south was relatively calm and politically stable in the initial years after a pro-Western government was appointed in Kabul in 2001. U.S. and Afghan officials said the new flare-up stemmed from public disillusionment with the government, an increase in drug trafficking and efforts by Islamic extremists to terrorize residents in the south as NATO troops prepare to assume command over security there.

Monday's fighting inflicted the first major civilian casualties in many months. Some people in the religiously conservative area support the Kabul government, while others cooperate with the insurgents because of fear, old tribal relationships, economic need or outright support for their goal of overthrowing the Kabul government.

Asadullah Khalid, the governor of Kandahar province, said Taliban fighters used civilian compounds near the village of Azizi as "trenches" to fire at U.S.-led forces, which provoked counter-fire and, later, airstrikes that he said killed 16 civilians and wounded 16 others.

"These accidents happen during fighting, especially when the Taliban hide in homes," the governor told journalists in the city of Kandahar. "I urge people not to give shelter to the Taliban."

Witnesses and wounded civilians at a Kandahar hospital later tearfully told reporters that they had lost children, relatives and neighbors in the strikes.

A U.S. military statement said troops, while searching for suspected terrorists after two recent attacks in the volatile Panjwai district of western Kandahar, met "organized armed opposition" and responded with ground attacks and strafing runs by U.S. A-10 jets. It said they had "only targeted armed resistance, compounds and buildings known to harbor extremists."

Military statements said that 20 Taliban fighters were killed and that as many as 60 others may have died.

Kandahar, Helmand and two other southern provinces are rapidly shaping up as a summer battleground between Afghan and NATO-led forces on one side and a variety of anti-government groups on the other, including Taliban fighters, other Afghan militia groups, opium poppy traders and foreign Islamic fighters.

Military officials said that despite the growing frequency and geographical spread of violence, they believed that these groups were not acting in coordination. Instead, they described the violence as a "pushing back" response to increasing encroachment by Afghan and foreign troops into the vast and rugged tribal region.

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