- The Washington Times - Monday, September 1, 2003

QALAT, Afghanistan — Two American soldiers were killed yesterday in a firefight with Taliban suspects in eastern Afghanistan, while hundreds of holdouts poured into remote southern mountains to join a weeklong battle with Afghan forces and their U.S. allies.

The soldiers died and another was wounded in a 90-minute gunbattle in Afghanistan’s eastern Paktika province, near the Pakistani border. Four suspects also were killed.

It was the latest sign of escalating violence in Afghanistan, where guerrillas from the radical Islamic Taliban regime have appeared to regroup, starting bolder and better-coordinated attacks against government targets. Four U.S. soldiers have been killed in fighting here in less than two weeks.

In the south, U.S. fighter jets and helicopters pummeled entrenched rebel positions for a seventh day in the mountains of Zabul province amid stiff resistance by Taliban forces.

Dozens of Taliban suspects have been killed in the onslaught, one of the fiercest since the hard-line group was driven from power in late 2001.

U.S. warplanes bombed the area in Dai Chupan district for three hours before dawn and carried out several bombing sorties before noon. Afghan soldiers sweeping the area after dawn reported 14 more Taliban deaths, said Khalil Hotak, the intelligence chief of southern Zabul province.

There were no reports of casualties among government forces. It was not possible to independently confirm Mr. Hotak’s reports. He spoke at an operations center in Qalat, the provincial capital about 40 miles south of the fighting.

U.S. military spokesman Col. Rodney Davis said Saturday that 33 Taliban had been killed in the recent fighting in the south, but Afghan officials put the death toll much higher.

The Dai Chupan district, an area of rugged mountain gorges and ridges, is believed to be the stronghold from where Taliban forces start operations in neighboring provinces.

An Afghan military commander speaking from Larzab, one of the front-line locations in the battle, said yesterday that intelligence from an informer indicated that more Taliban fighters had arrived in the area.

“We have information that more than 250 Taliban entered Dai Chupan district from the neighboring district of Mizan,” said Gen. Haji Saifullah Khan, speaking by satellite phone.

The U.S.-allied Afghan forces also have brought in reinforcements, increasing their numbers from 500 to 800, Mr. Hotak said.

He said hundreds of U.S. troops were in Dai Chupan yesterday. His earlier reports had put the number at up to 70 Americans. The U.S. military didn’t confirm either number.

The coalition has 11,500 soldiers hunting down fighters from Taliban and terror network al Qaeda, mainly in the south and east of the country.

The offensive in Dai Chupan began when U.S. warplanes bombed a mountain hide-out near Dozai, killing at least 14 insurgents, according to Afghan officials. The fighting has since spilled into other areas in the district.

The fighting in Paktika province yesterday started when U.S. troops patrolling northwest of the border town of Shkin came under attack from insurgents, the military said in a statement.

Three soldiers were wounded. A U.S. rapid-reaction force was called in, and a 90-minute firefight followed. Two U.S. A-10 warplanes were called in for support but didn’t open fire, the military said.

Two of the wounded soldiers died, and the third was rushed to Bagram Air Base, the U.S. military headquarters in Afghanistan, for treatment, the military said.

The two deaths came after a U.S. special-operations soldier was killed Friday in a fall during the fighting in Zabul province. A week earlier, another U.S. troop was killed in combat in the eastern part of the country.

Thirty-five U.S. soldiers have been killed in action in Afghanistan, and 162 have been wounded owing to hostilities, the U.S. military said.

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