Afghanistan Battles Taliban in South

16 Insurgents Die in NATO-Backed Fight

A British paratrooper is positioned in Kandahar, Afghanistan. The Britons joined Canadian forces in supporting Afghan troops seeking to rout the Taliban.
A British paratrooper is positioned in Kandahar, Afghanistan. The Britons joined Canadian forces in supporting Afghan troops seeking to rout the Taliban. (By Marco Di Lauro -- Getty Images)
Washington Post Foreign Service
Thursday, June 19, 2008; Page A10

ISLAMABAD, Pakistan, June 18 -- Hundreds of Afghan and Canadian troops launched a major attack Wednesday against Taliban fighters who have moved into several villages in southern Afghanistan in recent days, according to military officials.

Troops with the Afghan army and the Canadian command of NATO's International Security Assistance Force initiated joint patrols around Arghandab district in Kandahar province early in the morning. Helicopter gunships flew overhead and armored vehicles rolled into the district as Taliban fighters exchanged fire with NATO and Afghan forces.

Kandahar's provincial police chief, Sayed Agha Saqib, said at least 16 Taliban fighters were killed and four injured in the counteroffensive. He said insurgents had staked out positions in the orchards of Arghandab and were generally surrounded by NATO and Afghan forces.

NATO spokesman Mark Laity said there were no reported NATO casualties. A NATO general told the Reuters news service that some Afghan troops had been killed.

"The operation is on track and on schedule. So far, we've had only minor contact with insurgents," Laity said.

Laity said Afghan and Canadian troops confirmed that there was a Taliban presence in Arghandab, but he added that reports that hundreds of insurgents were active in the region were "greatly exaggerated."

Saqib, the provincial police chief, said that it was difficult to estimate the exact number of insurgents in the region but that the numbers probably were exaggerated by Taliban spokesmen. There "are not that many to worry about," he said.

Brig. Gen. M. Zaher Azimi, a spokesman for the Afghan Defense Ministry, said that airstrikes were underway in the area and that Afghan and NATO forces used heavy artillery to flush out fighters in the villages of Kohak and Nagahan. "The Taliban are positioning to escape. They have already left some of the villages which were under control," Azimi said. "But there are still some Taliban hiding."

Preparations for the Afghan-led counteroffensive in Arghandab began Monday after officials reported that about 500 Taliban fighters had taken control of at least nine villages in the district. Arghandab is about 12 miles northwest of Kandahar, Afghanistan's second-largest city. Hundreds of villagers began fleeing the area Tuesday after Taliban insurgents blew up three bridges and laid mines along several roadways around Arghandab.

NATO forces airdropped hundreds of leaflets into Arghandab, warning residents to stay inside their homes in advance of the counteroffensive against the Taliban. NATO officials initially reported that there was no evidence that residents had fled the area, but Laity said Wednesday that some locals left "for fear of the fighting and for fear of the Taliban."

"We're going to give Arghandab a thorough sweeping," he said.

The battle in Arghandab marks the second time in less than a year that the Taliban has tried to take control of the area. Last year, fighters clashed with Canadian troops in several fierce skirmishes after the death of a local tribal elder who had helped to keep peace in the region.

Elsewhere in Afghanistan on Wednesday, four British soldiers were killed and another soldier wounded in an explosion during an operation in Helmand province, according to the British Defense Ministry.

Canadian troops have sustained the third-highest number of casualties among international troops in the Afghan war. There have been 85 Canadian deaths, primarily in areas west of Kandahar city.

Special correspondent Javed Hamdard in Kabul and staff researcher Robert E. Thomason in Washington contributed to this report.

© 2008 The Washington Post Company