Kabul, Aug. 25 (Reuters): Up to 50 Taliban fighters were killed in a big air and ground operation by US and Afghan forces against hundreds of guerrillas today in the southern province of Zabul, a spokesperson for the governor said.
“The deaths were the result of heavy bombing by US forces and ground attacks by government forces,” Hamdullah Watandoost said. “We have seen 40 to 50 dead bodies.” He said the Taliban fighters were killed in the Dozi area of Zabul’s Dai Chopan district and the guerrillas’ main base there had been overrun. A US statement issued from headquarters at Bagram air base just north of Kabul said F-16 fighters and A-10 aircraft attacked enemy forces, supporting Afghan troops and special operations soldiers on the ground.
It confirmed at least 14 suspected Taliban killed, saying that the clashes were in Kandahar province. The statement appeared to be referring to the same battle; Kandahar province borders Zabul to the south. According to Juman Khan, police chief of Dai Chopan, warplanes pounded mountain areas where up to 600 Taliban fighters were thought to be holed up after launching attacks on Friday and Saturday.
He said ground forces, which included about 450 Afghans and two dozen Americans, had captured up to 40 suspects though these could include innocent people. He said the government and Americans had not suffered any casualties.
”The rest of Taliban, I think, have fled,” he said.“The bombing has just ended because of darkness. As far as I can see, the Taliban have been defeated totally here and we have captured their bases.”
Khan described the Taliban force scattered over rugged terrain as one of the biggest concentrations since the fundamentalist group was overthrown in a U.S.-led campaign in late 2001.
He said it included fighters blamed for bloody attacks in Zabul and neighbouring Uruzgan province on Friday and Saturday.
There had been no contact with them since Saturday, when five government soldiers were killed in an ambush by a group of guerrillas who lost four men in an ensuing skirmish.
SURGE IN VIOLENCE
A death toll of 50 would be the biggest single-day setback for a resurgent Taliban movement in more than a year. In early June, government forces said they killed 40 Taliban fighters in an operation near the Pakistani border.
Khan said the Taliban force was thought to include Mullah Dadullah, one of the Taliban's top commanders accused of ordering the execution of a foreign Red Cross worker this year. However, it was unclear if any senior figures were among those killed.
The operation in Dai Chopan follows a surge in violence in the past two weeks across Afghanistan in which more than 100 people have been killed, many in attacks blamed on the Taliban.
A 12,500-strong U.S.-led force hunting Taliban remnants and their allies in the al Qaeda network blamed for the September 11, 2001, attacks on the United States, has had only limited success and the whereabouts of key leaders of both groups remain unknown.
They include Taliban leader Mullah Omar and al Qaeda's Osama bin Laden.
Afghan authorities say the Taliban have been operating in increasingly large groups in recent weeks to attack government troops, officials and aid workers.
Taliban officials say the militia is waging a“jihad”, or holy war, against foreign troops and sees government officials and aid workers as legitimate targets.