- The Washington Times - Saturday, May 20, 2006

KANDAHAR, Afghanistan — Militants hiding in a vineyard and armed with machine guns ambushed an Afghan army convoy yesterday, fatally shooting four soldiers but losing 15 of their own. Violence elsewhere killed another 15 persons — including two French troops and a U.S. soldier.

The 34 deaths resulted from some of the worst fighting in Afghanistan since the ouster of the Taliban in 2001 and reinforced fears of a resurgence of Islamic extremists.

A 24-hour spasm of violence last week killed about 120 people before calming briefly. The violence erupted again Friday with six militants, an Afghan soldier and a civilian killed in Helmand province, the main opium poppy-growing region, where drug profits are thought to fund the insurgency, said Gen. Rehmatullah Raufi, military commander for the south.

In the same area yesterday, insurgents crouching in fields of grapevines and wheat opened fire on a half-mile-long convoy of Afghan army trucks as it snaked its way slowly along a dirt road with reinforcements, he said. The two sides exchanged fire with machine guns and AK-47 assault rifles for six hours before the insurgents fled on foot and motorbikes, the general said.

When it was over, 15 rebels and four soldiers lay dead, but 13 troops were still missing, an army officer said on the condition of anonymity because he was not authorized to speak to reporters.

Hundreds of extra forces then rushed into the area, now controlled by the army, Defense Ministry spokesman Gen. Zahir Azimi said.

Militants ambushed another Afghan army convoy in southern Zabul province yesterday, and four rebels were killed as the troops returned fire, Gen. Raufi said.

The U.S. soldier was killed Friday in Uruzgan province, also in the south, the military said in a prepared statement. Six soldiers were wounded and in stable condition. Lt. Tamara Lawrence, a U.S. military spokeswoman, said the U.S. soldiers were conducting a joint patrol with Afghan forces when they encountered enemy fighters about 10 a.m. Friday.

In the past year, Uruzgan has been the site of some of the heaviest fighting in Afghanistan, but militants suffered high losses in battles with coalition forces, and the violence has subsided in recent months.

At least 235 members of the U.S. military have died in and around Afghanistan as a result of the U.S. invasion of Afghanistan in late 2001, according to the U.S. Defense Department.

Two French special forces troops were killed yesterday while fighting the Taliban in Kandahar province, the French Defense Ministry said. France has had 200 special forces officers in southeast Afghanistan since 2003 as part of the U.S.-led coalition.

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