- The Washington Times - Sunday, July 5, 2009

KABUL, Afghanistan | Taliban militants fired rockets and mortars at a U.S. base in eastern Afghanistan on Saturday, killing two American troops in a fierce battle as thousands of Marines in the south continued with their massive anti-Taliban push.

The multipronged attack in eastern Paktika province - where an American soldier was captured this week - included a truck bombing near the camp’s gates. The battle ended only after U.S. forces called in air strikes on militants.

The battle near the Pakistan border is hundreds of miles from the massive Marine assault in southern Helmand province. It underscores the militants’ ability to inflict casualties on the overstretched U.S. forces as they widen their battle against the Taliban, which has made a violent comeback after its initial defeat in the American-led 2001 invasion.

More than 30 insurgents were killed in the Saturday battle in the Zerok district of Paktika province, said Hamidullah Zawak, the provincial governor spokesman. Seven American and two Afghan troops were wounded, a U.S. military spokesman said.

Attack helicopters, air strikes and fire from U.S. troops killed at least 10 militants, according to a statement from the NATO-led force under which these American troops fight. Troops detained one militant, the force said. The discrepancy in the militant death tolls could not immediately be reconciled.

During the battle, an insurgent drove a truck filled with explosives and gravel toward the gates of the U.S. base, Mr. Zawak said. When the driver did not heed warnings to stop, troops opened fire on the truck, which exploded, he said.

The blast happened as rocket and mortar fire peppered the base, killing two U.S. troops and wounding seven American soldiers, said Spc. April Campbell, a U.S. military spokeswoman.

The clash lasted for two hours before the U.S.-called air strikes that ended the fight, Mr. Zawak said.

The base housed both U.S. and Afghan soldiers.

Zabiullah Mujaheed, a Taliban spokesman, took responsibility for the attack. Mr. Zawak said that 32 insurgents were killed in the air strikes and that authorities have already recovered 16 bodies. Mr. Mujaheed said five insurgents were killed and three were wounded.

Saturday’s attack happened in the same province where an American soldier and three Afghans were thought captured by insurgents Tuesday.

U.S. troops continued looking for the soldier, Navy Chief Petty Officer Brian Naranjo said Friday. The military has not publicly identified him.

Meanwhile across the border, Pakistani warplanes and helicopter gunships pounded Taliban positions in the country’s volatile northwest Saturday, killing at least 12 suspected insurgents, security officials said.

Elsewhere in northwestern Pakistan, clashes between tribesmen and Taliban fighters left 16 people dead in the latest violence between pro-government tribal militias and insurgents.

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