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165 Militants Killed In Afghan Battles

Two battles killed more than 165 Taliban fighters and a U.S.-led coalition soldier in southern Afghanistan on Wednesday as President Hamid Karzai discussed the escalating violence with President Bush in New York.

One of the clashes began Tuesday when several dozen insurgents attacked a joint coalition-Afghan patrol with machine guns, mortars and rocket-propelled grenades near the Taliban-controlled town of Musa Qala in Helmand province, with Taliban reinforcements flowing in all day, a coalition statement said.

The coalition said it returned artillery fire and called in fighter aircraft, killing more than 100 of the Taliban fighters. One coalition soldier was killed and four wounded.

The coalition said there were no immediate reports of civilian deaths or injuries.

The huge clashes came as Karzai met Mr. Bush in New York on the sidelines of the U.N. General Assembly.

Despite Afghanistan's booming drug trade and a resurgence of Taliban violence, President Bush claimed Afghanistan is becoming a safer, more stable country thanks to Karzai's efforts.

"Mr. President, you have strong friends here," Mr. Bush told Karzai after they met for about an hour at the Waldorf-Astoria Hotel. "I expect progress and you expect progress and I appreciate the report you have given me today."

Burdened by criticism over his handling of the Iraq war, Mr. Bush apparently was attempting to show progress in a conflict that has largely been overshadowed by the fighting in Iraq. There are more than 20,000 U.S. troops in Afghanistan, part of a larger international force battling the Taliban to try to stabilize the country.

Some of the U.S. president's critics argue he should have finished the job in Afghanistan before invading Iraq to topple President Saddam Hussein.

The two leaders made no direct mention of the drug trade, the unsuccessful search for al Qaeda leader Osama bin Laden or the resurgence of the Taliban. Karzai said the liberation of Afghanistan is often overlooked these days.

"I don't know if you feel it in the United States but we feel it immensely in Afghanistan," Karzai said. "Afghanistan has indeed made progress," he said, citing improvements in basic services such as roads and education.

Afghan opium poppy cultivation hit a record high this year, fueled by Taliban militants and corrupt government officials, a U.N. report found last month. The country produces nearly all the world's opium, and Taliban insurgents are profiting.

More than 4,500 people have died in insurgency-related violence this year, according to an Associated Press count based on figures from Afghan and Western officials. Most were militant but at least 600 civilians were among those killed.

In other violence Wednesday, a suicide bomber waited outside a police station in Helmand's Sangin district and blew himself up as two officers left the compound by motorcycle, killing them both, said deputy provincial police chief Faqir Askeryar.

Taliban militants overran Musa Qala in February, four months after British troops left the town following a contentious peace agreement that handed over security responsibilities to Afghan elders. Musa Qala has been in control of Taliban fighters ever since.

Situated in northern Helmand province, Musa Qala and the region around it have seen the heaviest fighting in Afghanistan this year. It is also in the middle of the country's poppy-growing belt.

In neighboring Uruzgan province, more than 80 Taliban fighters attacked a joint Afghan and coalition patrol from bunkers near the village of Kakrak in a six-hour battle Tuesday night, the coalition said.

Coalition artillery and air support bombarded Taliban positions, killing more than 65 insurgents, it said.

Three civilians were wounded in the crossfire, it said. No Afghan or coalition forces were hurt.

The battle took place near an area where more than three dozen insurgents were killed as they prepared an ambush six days ago, the coalition said.

More than 4,500 people have died in insurgency-related violence this year, according to an Associated Press count based on figures from Afghan and Western officials. Most were militant but at least 600 civilians were among those killed.

On Tuesday, about 400 villagers blocked a major highway during a protest after two civilians - a father and son - were killed by international forces who were conducting a search operation in the Zhari district of Kandahar province, villagers said.

Spokesmen from both NATO and the coalition said they had no reports of any search operations or civilian deaths in Zhari.

Habibullah Jan, a lawmaker from Sanzari village, said NATO forces surrounded the village and killed the father and son. He warned that if international forces continued to target civilians, villagers would turn against them.

In the past week, international forces "arrested innocent villagers from three homes, calling them Taliban. Everyone knows that we don't let the Taliban into our area," said Karim Khan, one of the protesters.

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