Afghan and NATO troops backed by helicopter gunships killed 35 Taliban rebels Wednesday in a huge “clean-up” operation to drive out militants entrenched in villages near Kandahar.
Two Afghan soldiers also died in the offensive in southern Arghandab district, which was launched after a burst of insurgent activity including a mass rebel jailbreak in Kandahar that embarrassed President Hamid Karzai.
The operation began as the deaths of six NATO soldiers were announced elsewhere in Afghanistan. Four were British soldiers, reportedly including the country’s first female casualty in the war-ravaged country.
An AFP reporter saw helicopters swooping low overhead as Canadian armoured vehicles pushed into the centre of Arghandab, a lush area surrounded by pomegranate orchards considered a strategic prize by the rebels.
A Taliban spokesman told AFP that the hardline movement’s fighters — hundreds of whom swarmed into the district on Monday evening — wanted to capture it in order to launch attacks on Kandahar itself.
The southern city, Afghanistan’s second biggest, was where the Taliban first rose to power in the 1990s before taking control of the rest of the country. US-led forces ousted the Islamist regime in late 2001.
General Carlos Branco, a spokesman for the NATO-led International Security Assistance Force, said more than 1,000 Afghan and Canadian NATO troops were taking part in the operation launched on Wednesday morning.
“We’re progressing steadily and carefully in order not only to avoid civilian casualties but because of the potential threat from possible IEDs (improvised explosive devices),” Branco told AFP.
An Afghan defence ministry statement said a group of Taliban was targeted in a NATO air strike in Ta-been village in Arghandab, killing 20 “local and foreign terrorists” while three more were shot dead elsewhere in the district.
Another 12 militants were killed in neighbouring Maiwand district, another defence ministry statement said. Two soldiers were also killed in the operation, the ministry said.
NATO’s Branco confirmed that military helicopters had “engaged” the rebels but said no fixed-wing aircraft had dropped bombs.
Two civilian ISAF workers were also wounded during the operation, NATO civilian spokesman Mark Laity said, without giving their nationalities.
Taliban spokesman Yousuf Ahmadi vowed fierce resistance.
“We will use Arghandab for specific attacks with mortars and cannons on targets in Kandahar city. We have also planned a suicide attack which will be carried out in Kandahar,” he told AFP by telephone from an unknown location.
The operation has forced around 1,500 families to leave their homes and abandon crops that were ready for harvest, said Ahmad Wali Karzai, the head of Kandahar provincial council and a brother of President Karzai.
“I evacuated my family three days ago and stayed with my belongings and my animals. But today the fighting started and there are groups of 70 to 80 Taliban taking up positions,” said local resident Mir Ahmad.
Meanwhile, Taliban spokesman Ahmadi claimed responsibility for a bomb blast in neighbouring Helmand province on Tuesday that the defence ministry in London said killed four British troops.
Another two ISAF soldiers died and 10 were wounded in eastern Paktika province on Wednesday, the force said.
Despite the presence of about 70,000 international troops from some 40 countries mainly operating under NATO, an insurgency aimed at toppling the US-backed government in Kabul has gained pace in the past two years.
Friday’s jailbreak happened the day after President Karzai won billions of dollars in pledges of aid at a donors’ conference in Paris, but with a warning that he had to improve the security situation.
In a further blow to Western forces, the separate US-led coalition said on Wednesday that four helicopter engines worth 13 million dollars had gone missing in the region.
The engines were being shipped by a Pakistani trucking company when they disappeared, some time before April 11, the coalition said.