MIANA SHIEN, Afghanistan (AP) – The bodies of 76 suspected rebels were found in the mountains of southern Afghanistan, the Defense Ministry said Saturday, bringing to 178 the number of insurgents killed in one of the deadliest bombardments by U.S. and Afghan forces since the Taliban fell in 2001.

U.S. military officers and Afghan officials, meanwhile, met near the mountainous battlefield with dozens of local tribal chiefs to urge them to help combat militants still holding out.

Though no major fighting has occurred in or around Miana Shien district since three days of airstrikes ended Thursday, about 80 rebels are believed to be still hiding in the mountains. They include two well-known Taliban commanders – Mullah Dadullah and Mullah Brader.

Defense Ministry spokesman Zahir Marad said that 56 suspected insurgents were captured as security forces pushed further into the rugged terrain and that troops were still pursuing rebels fleeing on horseback and motorcycle.

“Our forces have collected the bodies of 76 more rebels from the battlefield,” he said, adding that the corpses had been scattered across a wide mountainous area.

The U.S. military’s toll of insurgents killed was much lower, at 56, but spokesman Lt. Col. Jerry O’Hara said this did not necessarily make the government’s figure wrong, because Afghan forces had taken the lead in the operation and U.S.-led coalition troops were finding it hard to count the dead.

“It’s very difficult determining how many died when A-10 planes and other attack aircraft, as well as heavy machine guns, have been used against the enemy,” he said. “Some of the bodies may also have been buried before we could count them.”

About 465 suspected insurgents have been reported killed since March, after snows melted on mountain tracks used by the rebels. In the same period, 29 U.S. troops, 38 Afghan police and soldiers and 125 civilians have been killed.

The increase in fighting has reinforced concerns that the Afghan war is widening, rather than winding down. U.S. and Afghan officials warn things could get worse ahead of parliamentary elections scheduled for September.

O’Hara said the purpose of the meeting of about 35 tribal chiefs, the governors of Zabul and Kandahar provinces and U.S. officials was to determine how “we can prevent the Taliban from having any influence” in the region, which was a Taliban stronghold before Afghan and coalition forces attacked the area last Tuesday.

Ali Khail, a spokesman for the Zabul governor, said the tribal leaders expressed their support for the battle. He said Afghan officials promised to build roads and clinics in the impoverished area in exchange for their loyalty.

“The meeting went very well,” he said. “They have promised to help us track down the Taliban.”

Separately, election officials started registering voters ahead of the legislative polls – the next key step toward democracy after a quarter-century of war.

The Afghan-U.N. Joint Electoral Management Body said it aims by July 21 to have registered any Afghans who have turned 18 or returned from abroad since presidential elections last October.


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