KABUL, Afghanistan (AP) – U.S.-led coalition soldiers and Afghan forces killed about 50 militants in two days of major fighting near a Taliban-controlled town in southern Afghanistan’s poppy-growing belt, officials Saturday.

Taliban forces fired rocket-propelled grenades and small arms at a combined coalition-Afghan patrol near the town of Musa Qala in Helmand province, sparking a battle that lasted several hours and involved the use of military aircraft, the coalition said in a statement. Nearly three dozen militants were killed.

The battle was the second in two days near Musa Qala. The coalition said it killed more than a dozen insurgents Friday after the militants ambushed a patrol. Attack aircraft helped repel that initial attack, though the fighters tried to reinforce their numbers throughout the engagement, which lasted several hours, the coalition said.

Taliban militants overran Musa Qala in February, four months after British troops left the town following a contentious peace agreement that handed over security responsibilities to Afghan elders. Musa Qala has been in control of Taliban fighters ever since and is in the heart of the world’s largest poppy-growing region.

U.S. Gen. Dan McNeill, the commander of NATO forces in Afghanistan, said this week that the Taliban fund between 20 percent and 40 percent of their militant operations through opium poppies. Afghanistan is the world’s largest producer of opium, the main ingredient in heroin.

This year has been the most violent since the U.S.-led coalition ousted the Taliban from power in 2001. More than 5,200 people have died in insurgency-related violence this year, according to an Associated Press count based on figures from Afghan and Western officials.

Elsewhere, a remote-control bomb exploded next to a police vehicle in eastern Paktia province, killing two police, said Din Mohammad Dirwesh, the governor’s spokesman. Four police were wounded in the blast.

A tribal elder close to the government, meanwhile, was killed by gunmen in Paktia, Dirwesh said. The elder had been threatened by the “enemy” several times to sever his ties with the government, he said.

AP-ES-10-20-07 1401EDT


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