- The Washington Times - Sunday, September 3, 2006

PASHMUL, Afghanistan — Warplanes and artillery pounded Taliban fighters hiding in orchards yesterday during an Afghan-NATO offensive that the alliance said killed more than 200 militants in its first two days. Four Canadian soldiers also were killed.

If the estimate is confirmed, the battle would be one of the deadliest since U.S.-led forces ousted the Taliban regime five years ago. Reporters could not reach much of the combat zone because officials barred traffic from all but one road in this part of southern Kandahar province.

An Associated Press reporter who traveled to Pashmul saw warplanes drop five bombs within about 20 minutes on orchards where militants were thought to be hiding. The reporter was about 300 yards away.

Explosions echoed across grape and pomegranate fields, and clouds of dust rose amid the greenery and dried-mud houses of the Panjwayi district, which is about 12 miles from Kandahar city.

Operation Medusa began Saturday to flush out Taliban fighters from Panjwayi and neighboring Zhari district. NATO spokesman Maj. Scott Lundy said alliance and Afghan troops had gained ground and disrupted the militants’ command system, so guerrillas were moving in confusion.

Afghan Defense Minister Abdul Rahim Wardak said Taliban casualties were high, but could not confirm the NATO report of more than 200 dead.

A NATO statement said its figure was derived from “surveillance and reconnaissance assets operating in Panjwayi and Zhari districts, as well as information reported by various Afghan officials and citizens living nearby.”

About 80 other suspected Taliban members were arrested by Afghan police and 180 others fled the area, it said.

Jason Husiak, a spokesman at the Canadian Department of National Defense, said four Canadian soldiers died in yesterday’s fighting and others were wounded.

NATO said seven soldiers in its International Security Assistance Force were wounded, one seriously. The other six were expected to return to duty within a few days, it said.

There was no word on any casualties among Afghan troops.

On Saturday, a reconnaissance plane supporting Operation Medusa crashed, killing all 14 British servicemen on board. NATO said the crash was not caused by hostile fire.

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