- The Washington Times - Tuesday, August 3, 2004

KABUL, Afghanistan — Afghan troops backed by U.S. warplanes killed as many as 70 militants in a daylong battle near the Pakistani border in one of the bloodiest clashes since the fall of the Taliban, military officials said yesterday.

An Afghan commander said government forces heard militant radio messages in Arabic and the Chechen language suggesting that al Qaeda fighters were involved.

“We could hear the enemy,” said Gen. Nawab, an Afghan commander who uses one name. “I’m sure there were foreigners involved.”

Two Afghan soldiers were reported killed in the fighting, an indication of the militants’ vulnerability to U.S. air power.

The battle began at about 2 a.m. Monday, when dozens of militants armed with rockets, mortars and machine guns hit a border post in Khost province, a former al Qaeda stronghold 120 miles south of the capital, Kabul.

The U.S. military said it sent a B-1 bomber, A-10 ground-attack aircraft and helicopter gunships and flew in Afghan reinforcements, eventually forcing the assailants to flee “in panic.”

U.S. spokesman Maj. Rick Peat said pilots reported seeing 40 to 50 bodies on the battlefield near the mountainous Pakistani border. Several wrecked vehicles also were spotted.

Gen. Nawab put the rebel toll as high as 70, saying the militants had dragged away many dead and wounded as they retreated into Pakistan. Afghan forces recovered 10 bodies, he said.

The U.S. military said one of more than 100 Afghan soldiers involved in the fighting was killed and three were wounded. However, another Afghan commander, Khial Baz, said two of his men died.

Maj. Peat said no U.S. ground troops were involved.

The death toll appeared among the heaviest since the aerial poundings of Taliban troops by U.S. planes before the hard-line regime folded in late 2001, and confirmed a surge in violence ahead of the October presidential elections.

Assaults led by U.S. Marines in a Taliban stronghold in southern Afghanistan in May and June killed more than 100 militants, commanders have said, but it was not clear how many fell in a single engagement.

“The coalition and Afghan security forces continue to reap outstanding results” against militants, a U.S. statement said, “refusing to allow them to gather enough strength to affect progress toward a democratic government in Afghanistan.”

Khost borders Pakistan’s Waziristan tribal area, where officials in the Pakistani capital, Islamabad, say hundreds of foreign fighters have found refuge among sympathetic Pashtun tribesmen, the ethnic group from which the Taliban draws its main strength.

Pakistani troops have mounted a string of operations to crush the militants, sparking battles that have killed scores this year.

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