- The Washington Times - Friday, July 25, 2008

KABUL, July 24, 2008 (AFP) — Afghan troops recovered the bodies of 34 Taliban-linked fighters after a fierce clash in southern Afghanistan Thursday, the defense ministry said, while police said the final toll was double that.

Fifteen Taliban and seven policemen were killed separately in other attacks, with violence linked to a nearly seven-year-long Taliban-led insurgency surging in recent weeks.

The clash erupted after “enemy elements” attacked Afghan forces in Zabul province on the main road between the capital Kabul and the southern city of Kandahar, defense ministry spokesman Mohammed Zahir Azimi told AFP.

“A fierce battle started and the enemy were caught between the Afghan army on both sides,” Azimi said. “At least 34 enemy dead bodies are at the battlefield but we believe there are many more killed.”

Azimi said dozens more militants were wounded or arrested in the clash while large numbers of weapons were left at the scene.

The interior ministry said however 70 militants were killed in the fighting in Shah Joy, which is about 200 kilometres (125 miles) from the southern city of Kandahar.

“Today 70 enemies were killed in Shah Joy district of Zabul province by police and Afghan army and another four were arrested,” it said in a statement.

Among the dead were two Arabs and four Chechens, it said.

Azimi would not confirm this figure, which is one of the highest in weeks in the internationally backed effort to fight extremist Islamic militants.

“Our commander on the ground told us that around 50 Taliban may have been killed but we have only 34 dead bodies on the battlefield so we can confirm that 34 Taliban were definitely killed,” Azimi told AFP.

“There may be some more killed but we don’t have a way to prove that.”

The Afghan army was deployed on the key road this month after a surge in attacks along the route. Taliban have captured several Afghans travelling on the road and killed them, accusing them of working for the government and its allies.

Extremist activity has spiked in Afghanistan in recent weeks. It normally rises over the summer months but this year has seen an increase even over the same time last year with reports of more foreign fighters on the ground.

In the central province of Ghazni meanwhile, a joint NATO-Afghan operation to take back Ajristan district had left 15 militants dead, a provincial government spokesman said.

“At least 15 Taliban have been killed and several others are wounded since yesterday (Wednesday),” provincial government spokesman Ismail Jahangir said.

Dozens of Taliban militants had captured the district, located 200 kilometres (124 miles) southwest of Kabul, on Monday, killing one police officer as they stormed in.

“Joint operations began — with a coordinated air strike on insurgents — inside the village of Ajristan. Several insurgents have been killed and wounded,” NATO’s International Security Assistance Force (ISAF) said.

In other violence, a remote-controlled bomb destroyed a police vehicle in the eastern province of Paktia early Thursday, killing four policemen and wounding two others, said deputy provincial police chief Ghulam Dastageer Azad.

Taliban fighters also ambushed a police vehicle on patrol in the southwestern province of Farah overnight, another police official said.

“Three police were killed and another three were wounded,” said Abdul Raof Ahmadi, police spokesman for western Afghanistan.

The hardline Islamic Taliban were in government between 1996 and 2001 when they were driven out in a US-led invasion.

They are waging an insurgency which has gained pace in the past two years, claiming hundreds of lives including scores of civilians.

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