QALAT, Afghanistan – Afghan and U.S. troops overran three suspected Taliban positions and pinned down fighters in a cave Tuesday as fighting raged on in southern Afghanistan, the U.S. military and an Afghan commander said. American bombing echoed through the mountains as the troops tried to root out hundreds of Taliban holdouts who have offered a week of fierce resistance.
Coalition forces clashed with five- and 10-strong groups of fighters firing small arms and rocket-propelled grenades, U.S. military spokesman Col. Rodney Davis said.
The troops had cornered a group of insurgents in a cave and were attacking it Tuesday afternoon using small arms fire, artillery and air support.
There were no reported coalition casualties in the latest fighting, Davis said. He had no details on Taliban casualties.
Gen. Haji Saifullah Khan, the main Afghan commander in the battle area in Zabul province’s Dai Chupan district, said U.S. warplanes and helicopter gunships hammered Taliban positions until shortly before dawn Tuesday.
Khan said the Taliban had been pushed back from three hideouts Tuesday but were continuing to hunker down, using the rough terrain as their shield.
“It’s a huge mountain with many gorges in it. It provides very excellent shelter against bombing,” said Khan, who spoke to The Associated Press by satellite phone from the front lines.
The commander said his men would offer the Taliban in other hideouts a chance to surrender — then move in.
“We have tightened our siege. We are very close to the Taliban positions,” he said. “We will try to make them surrender. If they do not surrender then fighting will start.”
Khan said U.S. warplanes targeted the Sairo Gar mountain area. His ground troops found bedding and turbans but no weapons at the three locations — Kafir Shaila, Kabai and Ragh. There was no ground fighting as the Taliban simply retreated from their positions.
The U.S. military has been involved in the fighting since it began about eight days ago. Since Saturday, they have dubbed their role in the skirmishes as “Operation Mountain Viper.”
The military said U.S. special operations forces and soldiers from the 10th Mountain Division were involved along with close air support. The military would not say how many U.S. soldiers were involved in the fighting, though Afghan officials have put the number at several hundred.
“As a result of the offensive, several anti-coalition elements have fled the area making them more vulnerable to attack,” Davis said in a statement from Bagram Air Base, the coalition headquarters in Afghanistan.
One American soldier died Friday when he fell during a night combat mission. Two other U.S. soldiers died in a 90-minute gunbattle Sunday in eastern Afghanistan, near the border with Pakistan. Four suspected Taliban were killed in that fighting.
Those deaths bring to 35 the number of U.S. troops killed in action in Afghanistan, in addition to 162 that have been wounded, according to the U.S. military.
Afghan presidential spokesman Jawid Luddin said that more than 500 troops of the fledgling Afghan national army had been deployed in Zabul. So far, most of the fighting on the government side has been done by provincial militia forces.
On Monday, suspected insurgents rode up to a group of Afghan soldiers protecting the Kabul-Kandahar road in Shajoi — near the main fighting — killing four soldiers and setting their vehicle ablaze, provincial intelligence chief Khalil Hotak told The Associated Press from a command center in Qalat.
That followed an attack late Sunday, when a large group of rebels attacked an Afghan checkpoint in Shajoi. They killed four soldiers and took the remaining two captive.
The latest attacks on the Afghan soldiers, both near the mountains of Dai Chupan, appeared to be an attempt by the insurgents to distract government forces from the main battle, said Hotak.
Dozens of suspected Taliban have been killed in the ongoing battle in Zabul province. U.S. military spokesman Rodney Davis said at least 37 insurgents had been killed in direct combat or air strikes. Afghan officials have put the toll much higher.
There was no word of casualties among government forces Monday.
On Monday, a provincial religious leader, Mulvi Abdul Rahman, told AP that he had spoken to tribal elders in the area and asked them to pass along an offer on behalf of the Zabul governor to the Taliban: Lay down your weapons and we will allow you to return home.
Rahman said he had not received a response, but that negotiations to end the battle peacefully where ongoing.