U.S. and Afghan forces fought a fierce, 11-hour battle Tuesday against about 100 Taliban militiamen in the mountains of southern Afghanistan, killing at least 49 rebels and capturing eight in some of the most intense combat since the Taliban government was ousted in 2001, Afghan and U.S. officials said Wednesday.
Five U.S. soldiers and two Afghan policemen were injured in the clash and at least one Afghan policeman was killed, according to U.S. military officials. However, Gen. Salim Khan, who commanded several hundred Afghan policemen in the battle, disputed the casualty figures. He told news services that about a dozen of his men and 76 Taliban fighters were killed.
U.S. and British warplanes repeatedly bombarded Taliban positions in the battle area near the remote town of Sheykhan in Zabol province. It was the latest in a series of increasingly deadly clashes between pro-government and Taliban forces in the period leading up to scheduled parliamentary elections in September.
The latest fight offered fresh evidence of the Taliban's resilience 31/2 years after the extremist Islamic militia was forced from power by a U.S.-led bombing campaign. Although Taliban forces have been unable to hold territory against U.S. forces and have repeatedly suffered heavy casualties, they have continued to move through the south and east in units of 20 or more, firing light machine guns and grenade launchers during several pitched battles.
U.S. military spokesmen and Afghan officials said the renewed combat was largely the product of a U.S.-Afghan effort to flush militants from their last hideouts in the rugged hills of provinces bordering Pakistan.
"This was an operation to search for enemy and deny enemy sanctuary," one U.S. official said.
On Tuesday morning, a company of U.S. troops and several hundred Afghan policemen began a sweep to investigate reports that Taliban fighters had been seen in the area around Sheykhan and had overrun the district government building in nearby Mian Nishin last Friday, killing or abducting members of the local police force.
The circumstances of those abductions remained unclear Wednesday.
Khan said that on Friday morning, the Mian Nishin police chief, the district chief and 11 policemen were ambushed on the road from the city of Kandahar to Mian Nishin and that two police officers were killed in the resulting firefight.
The Taliban occupiers then telephoned a news agency from Mian Nishin and put the district police chief on the line to say that the others had been taken captive and would be "put on trial" for working for the government.
There were also initial reports that the Taliban had assaulted Mian Nishin's police station on Friday night, taking an additional 20 police officers captive. A Taliban spokesmen later said that eight of the captives, including the district and police chiefs, had been killed and that the remaining captives had been released.
But on Wednesday, Khan said in a brief satellite telephone interview that the police in Mian Nishin had made a deal with the Taliban to abandon their posts.
U.S. military officials said although there were bullet holes in the district government building, there was no sign that anyone had been shot there and no sign of the captives the Taliban claimed to have released.