55 militants killed in battle in east Afghanistan

June 23, 2008 10:13:10 AM PDT
Militants ambushed troops patrolling in the mountains of eastern Afghanistan, prompting a gunbattle and airstrikes that left about 55 militants dead, the U.S.-led coalition said Monday. Meanwhile, a coalition helicopter attacked men suspected of laying a roadside bomb in the same region, killing one. Afghan officials said two civilians, including a 4-year-old boy, also died.

The major battle began Friday in Paktika, one of the Afghan provinces along the porous Pakistani border where clashes between Taliban militants and security forces have intensified in recent months.

The coalition said militants ambushed the patrol on a road in Ziruk district with rockets and gunfire, prompting U.S.-led troops to return fire and call in warplanes.

About 55 insurgents were killed, including three key leaders, a coalition statement said. It did not identify them. Twenty-five militants were wounded and another three detained, it added. "Patrols in the ambush area continue to report additional enemy casualties," it said.

Nabi Mullahail, the provincial police chief, said the fighting had continued into Sunday. He said militants suffered "huge" casualties, but had no details.

The clash was the second in three days to inflict heavy casualties on insurgents, who have little answer to Western airpower.

The Afghan Defense Ministry said its soldiers counted the bodies of 94 militants after a joint operation with NATO forces Wednesday in Arghandab, a valley just outside the southern city of Kandahar. Outgunned militants have turned increasingly to planting bombs for passing convoys of government or foreign troops.

The coalition said Monday that NATO troops spotted four militants laying a bomb by a road in Nangarhar, another eastern province.

After a gunbattle, a coalition helicopter fired on the militants, killing one of them, spokesman 1st Lt. Nathan Perry said. The troops pursued the other three and discovered a cache of bomb-making materials.

Perry said he had no reports of civilian casualties.

However, Zalmay Dadak, mayor of Khogyani district, said coalition fire during the overnight operation also hit a house in a village, killing a man and a 4-year-old boy.

Hundreds of villagers blocked the road in protest for several hours Monday.

Mohammed Wali, a village elder, said the father and son were asleep in their house when a projectile hit the roof. Two other homes were hit, killing more than a dozen cows, he said.

"We are asking President (Hamid) Karzai and the parliament to get serious about this kind of thing. Otherwise the consequences (for foreign troops) will be the same as for the Russians," he said, a reference to the humbling of Soviet troops by Afghan rebels in the 1980s.

Abdul Mohammed, a senior provincial police official, also said one militant and two civilians were believed dead.

Civilians are regularly killed in clashes between militants and security forces as well as bearing the brunt of insurgent suicide bombings.

On Monday, police said a car exploded in the western town of Shindand, killing four civilians and wounding another dozen in what appeared to be a botched suicide attack.

Local police chief Abdul Shuqur, citing witnesses, said that seconds before the blast the vehicle had approached a convoy of foreign troops. He said the troops opened fire when the driver ignored signals to stop.

A NATO spokesman had no information on the incident. Coalition and NATO commanders blame militants for launching attacks from family homes and in towns. However, they also face criticism from for using heavy firepower in residential areas.

Also Monday, Pakistan renewed an offer to fence the country's porous border with Afghanistan to stop crossings by militants.

The idea was first proposed by Pakistan's previous government of allies of President Pervez Musharraf. Army spokesman Maj. Gen. Athar Abbas said Monday more than 22 miles of "selected" sections had been built when the projected was shelved last year.

Afghan and U.S. officials complain militants fighting in Afghanistan freely roam the 1,500-mile border. Afghan officials have argued a fence doesn't deter militants but affects families separated by the border.


Associated Press writers Stephen Graham and Amir Shah contributed to this report.