Police, Taliban die in clash

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SARTAK, Afghanistan (AP) – Security forces backed by U.S.-led coalition helicopters attacked a suspected Taliban hideout in southeastern Afghanistan, sparking an intense battle that killed 41 rebels and six police, a senior official said Saturday.

The fighting was some of the heaviest reported after Taliban threats to intensify attacks as the warmer weather melts snow on mountain passes used by the militants.

Villagers said they appealed in vain for between 50 and 60 militants to leave the area days before the clashes erupted Friday in Kandahar province, a former Taliban stronghold near the border with Pakistan.

“Our elders had asked them (Taliban) to go away because we knew that one day American helicopters will come and drop bombs,” Faiz Ullah told The Associated Press in Sartak, a village surrounded by blooming opium poppy fields and the site of the heaviest fighting.

Provincial Gov. Asadullah Khalid said the assault was based on intelligence that the militants were preparing to attack the regional capital of Kandahar.

While the firing had died down Saturday and the situation appeared under control, security forces were still searching for some Taliban who had fled, he said.

“We saw the 41 bodies of Taliban at the end of the fighting, but we collected only 11,” Khalid said, refusing to elaborate on why the other bodies were not retrieved. He also said six police were killed.

U.S. military spokesman Lt. Mike Cody said coalition forces provided AH-64 Apache helicopters, which fired rockets in support of Afghan ground forces, but he declined comment on casualty figures, saying it was primarily an Afghan operation.

Ullah said Afghan police surrounded Sartak, about 25 miles southwest of Kandahar, on Friday morning and asked villagers to evacuate, but some were still inside their homes when the fighting broke out.

The 55-year-old villager saw only two militants and four Afghan policemen killed in Sartak but said other Taliban may have been killed in nearby villages.

He also said his 19-year-old sister, Pari Bibi, died in a gunbattle between Afghan forces and militants, while two other villagers, including a 10-year-old girl, were wounded. But it was unclear who was responsible for those casualties.

On Saturday, villagers returned to their homes and local children gathered shrapnel left over from the fighting. Three houses were badly damaged, and one local farmer, Mohammad Naseem, 40, moaned that his poppy crop was ruined because of a 16-foot-wide crater in the field.

No security forces could be seen in the area Saturday, despite official claims that the hunt for Taliban fighters was continuing.

Taliban rebels have stepped up attacks against coalition and Afghan forces over the past year, further jeopardizing Afghanistan’s shaky democracy. Senior U.S. envoy Richard A. Boucher warned earlier this month that the insurgency was likely to worsen this year.

Some 1,600 people, including 91 American troops, died from violence in 2005, the most in the four years since the Taliban were ousted by U.S.-led airstrikes for harboring Osama bin Laden and al-Qaida. The United States has more than 18,000 troops in Afghanistan.

The violence also is a growing concern to other nations contributing troops under the mandate of NATO, which is doubling its current force of 10,000 troops to about 21,000 by November, as it gradually assumes command of all the international forces in the country. Some 6,000 mainly British, Canadian and Dutch troops have started moving into the rebellious southern provinces.

Suspected Taliban also opened fire on a vehicle carrying district administrator Abdul Majid to work Saturday, killing him and wounding two guards in the nearby southern province of Helmand, provincial government spokesman Ghulam Muhiddin said.

Qari Yousaf Ahmadi, a purported spokesman for the Taliban, claimed responsibility for the attack and insisted that Majid had been killed with seven guards, a claim Muhiddin said was baseless.

Elsewhere in Helmand, a Taliban suicide car bomber rammed a British military convoy in the provincial capital of Lashkar Gar on Friday, wounding three British soldiers and one Afghan national, coalition officials said.

Helmand is Afghanistan’s main opium poppy-growing region and fears of widespread violence have risen since an aggressive poppy eradication campaign started in recent weeks.

Rugged mountains in the province are popular hiding places for Taliban rebels, many of whom are believed to slip back and forth across the largely unguarded border with Pakistan.

Also this week, coalition and Afghan forces launched a major offensive, dubbed Operation Mountain Lion, in eastern Kunar province where militants from Taliban, al-Qaida and other groups are active.

AP-ES-04-15-06 1456EDT

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