KABUL, Afghanistan – U.S. and Afghan forces clashed with suspected Taliban fighters in the mountains of southeastern Afghanistan on Tuesday, a day after American jets bombarded a camp and killed at least 14 rebels, officials said.
It was not immediately possible to confirm whether any Taliban were killed in the latest fighting in Zabul province, said Khalil Hotak, chief of the provincial intelligence service.
The Taliban, who authorities say may be fighting alongside members of al-Qaida or forces of a renegade warlord, put up strong resistance with mortars and heavy machine guns, said Juma Khan, the police chief of Dai Chupan district where fighting took place in a mountain pass.
On Monday, U.S. jets destroyed a Taliban mountain hideout in the same district. It was the deadliest air assault since rebels launched a series of recent strikes against Afghan government targets.
The attacks against police and government officials have cast a shadow over American-led efforts to rebuild the war-battered country. They are also indications of an increasingly well organized Taliban.
Hotak said the Taliban were operating with al-Qaida and loyalists of renegade rebel commander Gulbuddin Hekmatyar. He didn’t offer evidence for his claim, but said there were intelligence reports of Pakistanis and Middle Eastern fighters among the Taliban who escaped the bombardment of the camp on Monday. He did not say how he knew this.
Col. Rodney Davis, spokesman for the U.S. military at coalition headquarters at Bagram Air Base, north of Kabul, said late Monday that 14 “enemy” fighters were killed in two clashes, one of which involved air strikes.
“The number (killed) may be higher, and we are still waiting for additional battle damage assessment,” he told reporters Tuesday.
There were no reported casualties among U.S.-led coalition troops, Davis said.
Coalition forces were continuing to operate in the southeastern provinces of Kandahar, Zabul and Uruzgan, he said.
Taliban spokesman Mohammed Hanif said in a satellite telephone interview that the dead in Monday’s operation were civilians. He said the Taliban were attacked on two fronts by government troops but escaped. His version of events could not be verified.
Operations carried out in Afghanistan’s rugged mountain regions are difficult to independently verify, and differing accounts of casualties among suspected insurgents are difficult to reconcile.
In Monday’s operation, some government officials, including a spokesman for the governor of Zabul province, put the death toll among suspected Taliban at 50.
However, the U.S. military scaled back that estimate to 14.
It wasn’t clear whether bodies of the dead were recovered.
Another Afghan government spokesman, Khalid Pashtun of Kandahar, said two Taliban were captured in Monday’s operation. The captured men said the Taliban offensive in the Dai Chupan district where the suspected hideout was located was being led by Mullah Kahar and Mullah Abdul Hakim.
Hotak said the suspected camp, which was destroyed, included an eight-room building, four tents and cave shelters.
The recent anti-government assaults suggest that the Taliban are regrouping after their harsh Islamic regime was toppled by U.S.-led forces in late 2001.