More Than 100 Afghan Rebels Killed in Southern Provinces

By Pamela Constable
Washington Post Foreign Service
Sunday, June 25, 2006 9:54 AM

KABUL, Afghanistan, June 25 -- Afghan and international troops have killed more than 100 Taliban insurgents in several battles in two southern provinces since Friday, each involving large groups of rebel fighters and lasting several hours, U.S. military officials reported.

In the most recent fighting, two soldiers in the U.S.-led coalition were killed late Saturday during a battle in the Panjwai district of Kandahar province, according to U.S. military officials quoted by the Associated Press. The soldiers' names or nationalities were not immediately released.

The battle began when coalition forces encountered a group of eight to 10 Taliban fighters. The Taliban fled the area and joined other fighters in a nearby compound and 45 insurgents were killed in the fighting, the military told wire services.

The fresh fighting, coupled with other recent battles, brought to about 150 the number of insurgents killed in the past four days, a record during a two-month period of combat that has been the most intense and deadly since the overthrow of the Taliban government in late 2001.

In one encounter reported Saturday, about 40 insurgents attacked Afghan and foreign forces Friday near Tirin Kot, the capital of Uruzgan province, hiding in orchards, along a ridge and in a farm compound, officials said. After a five-hour battle, they said, most of the attackers had been killed. There were no reports of deaths or injuries among the Afghan and foreign troops.

In the second fight Friday, 25 insurgents were killed during a three-hour battle in the northern part of Kandahar province, officials said. During the fighting, several of the insurgents "used innocent Afghan civilians as shields" to escape to nearby villages, a U.S. military statement said.

Gen. Mohammed Azimi, the spokesman for the Afghan Defense Ministry, told reporters in Kabul Saturday that Afghan and international troops had made "very good achievements" since a major offensive called Operation Mountain Thrust began two weeks ago in four southern provinces where Taliban fighters have been especially active.

More than 10,000 troops are involved in the operation. Azimi said 149 insurgents had been killed, 32 wounded and 61 arrested. U.S. military spokesmen said about 200 insurgents had been killed in the same period. It was not immediately clear which figures were accurate. More than 600 people have been killed in fighting since early May, the great majority of them Taliban fighters or other insurgents.

Rahim Wardak, the Afghan defense minister, said Saturday night that Taliban forces were "coming out with bigger groups and confronting us directly in a lot of places, especially since the beginning of Mountain Thrust." Until recently, the insurgents had tended to ambush patrols or convoys in small, fast groups, often using explosive devices.

Wardak speculated that the insurgents were "trying to make the situation difficult" during the transition from U.S.-led to NATO-led military operations in the south this summer.

"Their masters are aware of the sensitivity in European capitals," where parliaments are concerned about the possibility of heavy casualties, he said.

Afghan and foreign military officials have predicted a long and intense summer of combat as contending offensives by the Taliban and Afghan government and international forces gather steam.

"This is a crucial and challenging time. We have both launched strategic offensives, and there are more of them now, but we are hitting them hard whenever they show themselves," said Mark Laity, a spokesman for NATO and international peacekeeping forces.

Laity said the Taliban fighters would not be easily defeated but were doomed to failure, in part because they have "no vision and nothing to offer. They operate purely on fear." The religious motivation of past Taliban rule, Laity said, appears to have been replaced by more pragmatic behavior such as a new alliance with opium poppy traffickers.

Across southern Afghanistan, Taliban fighters have forced villages to close schools and attacked police and army posts.

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