- Associated Press - Thursday, September 2, 2010

KABUL, Afghanistan | Two American service members died Thursday fighting in Afghanistan, while NATO and local officials said coalition and Afghan forces killed dozens of insurgents in a series of ground and air engagements.

U.S. Defense Secretary Robert M. Gates, meanwhile, arrived in the Afghan capital for meetings with President Hamid Karzai and NATO commander Gen. David H. Petraeus. The Pentagon chief also plans to visit U.S. troops in Afghanistan.

NATO said one U.S. service member was killed in the country’s east and the other in the south - regions where fighting between the coalition and Taliban insurgents has been at its most intense.

No other details were given in keeping with standard NATO procedure.

The deaths bring to three the number of U.S. service members killed in September and follow a spike in casualties during the last two weeks of August that saw the monthly total rise to 55.

The August figure was still below the back-to-back monthly records of 66 in July and 60 in June. Total U.S. combat deaths for January-August of this year - 316 - exceeded the previous annual record of 304 for the whole of 2009.

NATO said coalition forces beat back an attack on a combat outpost in Paktika province’s Barmal district along the mountainous border with Pakistan, reportedly killing at least 20 insurgents.

Troops first returned fire with mortars and small arms before calling in an air assault, the alliance said in a statement, adding that no NATO or Afghan government forces were killed.

NATO also said it had killed or wounded as many as 12 insurgents, including two commanders, in an airstrike Thursday on a car traveling along back roads in northwestern Takhar province’s Rustaq district.

However, the office of Mr. Karzai, who repeatedly has warned that civilian casualties undermine anti-insurgency efforts, issued a statement condemning the attack, saying 10 campaign workers for a candidate in this month’s parliamentary elections had instead been killed and two wounded.

Takhar Gov. Abdul Jabar Taqwa said the candidate, Abdul Wahid Khorasani, had been wounded when his car was fired on by helicopters that followed an initial pass by fighter jets.

The alliance said it was aware of Mr. Karzai’s claim and was investigating the incident.

Farther east in Ghazni province’s Andar district, five other insurgents were killed in an airstrike as they were placing a roadside bomb, NATO said.

In volatile Helmand province to the south, coalition and Afghan forces killed 11 insurgents and captured four, including a regional Taliban shadow district governor, Mulla Sayed Gul, responsible for ordering attacks and dispensing funds, the provincial governor said.

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