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2 U.S. Soldiers Die In Afghanistan

Two American soldiers died Sunday from wounds received in a battle with suspected Taliban fighters in eastern Afghanistan, while hundreds of Taliban fighters poured into remote southern mountains to join a week-long battle against Afghan forces and their U.S. allies.

The soldiers died after a 90-minute gunbattle in Afghanistan's eastern Paktika province. Another soldier was wounded and reported in stable condition at a treatment facility at a coalition outpost north of Shkin. The identities of the soldiers have not been released.

"The U.S. forces were conducting a combat mission in the vicinity of a firebase near Shkin when the engagement occurred," the U.S. military said in a statement. "Two of the soldiers died of wounds received during the initial contact with enemy fighters northwest of Shkin, in Paktika province this morning," the U.S. military statement said.

Four insurgents were killed during the battle, he said.

The soldiers' deaths came after a U.S. special operations soldier was killed Friday in a fall during a combat operation in southern Zabul province, the scene of a week of intense fighting. A week earlier another U.S. soldier was killed in combat in eastern Afghanistan.

In all, 35 U.S. soldiers have been killed in action in Afghanistan, and 162 wounded due to hostilities, the U.S. military said.

On Sunday, hundreds of Taliban reinforcements poured into the mountain region as U.S fighter jets supporting heavily armed Afghan soldiers pummeled entrenched rebel positions for a seventh day, an Afghan military commander said.

Dozens of suspected Taliban have been killed in the onslaught, one of the fiercest since the hardline group was driven from power in late 2001.

The latest bombing lasted three hours and ended shortly before dawn Sunday, said Khalil Hotak, the intelligence chief of southern Zabul province.

Afghan soldiers swept through the area in Dai Chupan district afterward and claimed to have seen 14 newly killed Taliban fighters, according to Hotak. There were no reports of casualties among government forces.

It was not possible to independently confirm Hotak's reports. He spoke to The Associated Press at an operations center in Qalat, the provincial capital about 70 kilometers (42 miles) south of the fighting.

Guerrillas of the radical Islamic regime that was ousted by U.S.-led forces less than two years ago have appeared to regroup in recent weeks, launching bolder and better coordinated attacks against Afghan government targets. A joint offensive by U.S. and local Afghan militia forces in response has met stiff resistance.

U.S. military spokesman Col. Rodney Davis said Saturday that 33 Taliban have been killed in the southern recent fighting, but Afghan officials put the insurgent death toll much higher.

The coalition has 11,500 soldiers hunting down Taliban and al Qaeda fighters, mainly in the south and east of the country.

The Dai Chupan district, an area of rugged mountain gorges and ridges, is believed to be Taliban stronghold from where they launch operations in neighboring provinces.

An Afghan military commander speaking from Larzab, one of the front-line locations in the battle, said Sunday that intelligence indicated more Taliban reinforcement fighters had arrived in the area.

"We have information that more than 250 Taliban entered Dai Chupan district from the neighboring district of Mizan," said Gen. Haji Saifullah Khan, who is leading the Afghan soldiers against the Taliban. Khan spoke with AP by satellite phone from the scene of the fighting.

"We have an informer among these people (Taliban)," Khan said.

He said U.S. planes flew several bombing sorties against the Taliban positions late Sunday morning but the operation had stopped and fighting had died down by the afternoon.

"There is no exchange of fire. We are quietly advancing toward where we have laid siege to the Taliban," Khan said.

About 500 Afghan soldiers had been earlier reported involved in the battles with the Taliban. Hotak said reinforcements have been sent and about 800 Afghan soldiers were in the region now.

On Sunday, Hotak said hundreds of American troops were in Dai Chupan, but the U.S. military didn't confirm that claim. He earlier said there were only 60 to 70 U.S. soldiers.

The offensive against the Taliban in Dai Chupan was launched last Monday, when Afghan officials said U.S. warplanes bombed a mountain hideout near Dozai, killing at least 14 of the insurgents. The fighting has since spilled into other areas in the district.

Early Sunday, four helicopter gunships and three U.S. fighter jets targeted suspected Taliban hideouts in the Chinaran, Ragh and Kabai areas of Dai Chupan, Hotak said, but no ground battles were reported on Sunday.

Hospital officials in Qalat told AP on Sunday that the wounded were taken immediately to a U.S. base at the airport in southern Kandahar.