KABUL, Afghanistan (AP) – The U.S.-led coalition said Saturday that its troops and Afghan forces had killed more than 80 militants in fighting across southern Afghanistan. In one case, insurgents used civilians as shields to escape.

Coalition troops battled more than 40 extremists in a five-hour gunbattle Friday in southern Uruzgan province, the military said in a statement.

Most of the militants, who were firing from positions in an orchard and compound, were believed killed, the coalition said.

Local Afghan commander Gen. Rahmatullah Roufi said 22 Taliban fighters were killed during the Uruzgan battle and another 18 were arrested. He said three coalition troops were slightly injured.

Afghan and coalition forces battled militants in a separate assault in Kandahar province, killing about 25 during three hours of fighting.

“Several extremists broke contact by using innocent Afghan civilians as shields to escape into nearby villages,” the statement said.

Also Friday, four insurgents were killed when Taliban fighters fired rockets near coalition forces in Kandahar province, said coalition spokesman Maj. Quentin Innis.

The coalition said that another 17 insurgents who had been setting up an ambush were killed when their bunker was destroyed in Uruzgan province on Wednesday.

Coalition forces have launched a massive offensive against Taliban forces in a bid to stop a wave of suicide attacks and ambushes.

More than 10,000 Afghan, British, Canadian and American troops are deployed across Kandahar, Helmand, Uruzgan and Zabul provinces, where Taliban forces have regrouped and gained strength and sympathy.

Some 200 insurgents have been killed since Operation Mountain Thrust got underway earlier this month, according to coalition figures.

The Afghan Defense Ministry gave a smaller figure, saying 149 militants have been killed, 32 wounded and 61 arrested. Three Afghan soldiers were killed and 14 others injured. It was unclear why there was a discrepancy in the numbers.

“Mountain Thrust is one of the biggest operations in the south of the country. As we enter the second week of this operation, we have made very good achievements,” said spokesman Gen. Mohammad Zahir Azimi.

Afghanistan is in the grips of its deadliest spate of violence since the Taliban’s ouster in 2001. President Hamid Karzai has decried the intense violence in the south, which since May has killed more than 600 people, mostly militants.

AP-ES-06-24-06 1252EDT

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