U.S. and Afghan forces backed by American warplanes attacked anti-government guerrillas in southeastern Afghanistan on Monday, killing at least 14, U.S. and Afghan officials said.
The joint assault, involving U.S. Army Special Forces, was part of operations to hunt down Taliban fighters blamed for a recent wave of attacks on government troops and police stations near the Pakistan border. The violence has killed dozens of people and cast a shadow over U.S.-led efforts to rebuild the war-battered country.
As part of the sweep, about 100 suspected guerrillas have been arrested in the past few days in the search for Taliban officials, Afghan officials said earlier Monday.
Monday's attack was carried out jointly by Afghan provincial militia forces, U.S. Army Special Forces soldiers as well as A-10 ground attack jets, F-16 fighter bombers and AV-8B Harrier attack jets, said Army Lt. Col. Jim Cassella, a Pentagon spokesman.
At least 14 insurgents were killed in the operation, U.S. spokesmen said.
Col. Rodney Davis, of the U.S. military at the coalition headquarters at Bagram Air Base north of Kabul, said the joint operation engaged anti-coalition forces in southern Kandahar province.
He said there were no reported coalition casualties, and added: "Operation Warrior Sweep continues."
Juma Khan, a district police chief, said the assault occurred in the Dai Chupan district of southeastern Zabul province, near the border with Kandahar. He put the death toll at 16.
Ahmad Khan, a spokesman for the governor of Zabul province, said as many as 50 Taliban guerrillas were killed in the operation Monday. There was no immediate way to reconcile the differing casualty figures.
A Taliban spokesman, Mohammed Hanif, told The Associated Press by satellite telephone that Afghan government troops launched two separate offensives against guerrilla fighters in the mountainous Dai Chupan district.
"It was a massive force of the government who wanted to kill and arrest the Taliban, but they were not successful," he said, claiming the Taliban contingent, led by Amir Khan Haqqani, fled the area.
He said only civilians were killed.
Presidential spokesman Jawad Luddin said the guerrillas were trying to stop reconstruction and destabilize local administrations of the government of Afghan leader Hamid Karzai, who took power after the ouster of the hardline Islamic militia by U.S.-led forces in late 2001.
The strict Muslim regime had sought to create an Islamic state based on its harsh interpretation of Islam.
In the past four days, about 600 mostly U.S. troops backed by helicopter gunships have been searching house-to-house for Taliban officials, said Khan Sayed, spokesman for the police chief of Paktika province.
He said about 80 suspects had been arrested.
Zabul's police chief, Juma Khan, told The Associated Press that joint forces had arrested about 20 people in mountainous districts 200 miles west of Kabul.
Also Monday, suspected Taliban insurgents exploded a land mine on a key highway in the eastern province of Logar but no one was injured, said Gen. Hatiqulluh Luddin, a regional military commander. The guerrillas were apparently targeting a convoy of government troops, but the mine only blew up a highway bridge minutes before the soldiers were to cross it, he said.
The recent assaults have been mostly in the south and east of Afghanistan, but also in some central regions. They come amid reports the Taliban are regrouping and that the group's leader, Mullah Mohammed Omar, has appointed military commanders to areas of control.
At least five government soldiers riding in a truck were killed in a Taliban ambush in Dai Chupan district on Saturday.
The Afghan administration has complained to Pakistan that ousted Taliban leaders appear to have found refuge in its lawless tribal regions where they have been able to regroup and plot their attacks. Pakistan has deployed its troops to the long and porous border regions to try to stop them.
Also Monday, a spokesman for warlord Abdul Rashid Dostum said powerful warlords have gathered about 100 light and heavy weapons from their supporters to stop the relentless factional feuding.
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