Afghans, NATO kill 20 Taliban in big operation

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KANDAHAR, Afghanistan, Oct 31 (Reuters) Afghan and NATO-led troops killed some 20 Taliban fighters in an operation close to the main southern city of Kandahar after an insurgent move to capture the district, a police chief said TOday.

Taliban fighters have concentrated around the district of Arghandab, only some 12 km (8 miles) from Kandahar, after a pro-government tribal leader who held the area died of a heart attack two weeks ago leaving the northern approach to Kandahar exposed.

Afghan army and troops from the NATO-led International Security Assistance Force (ISAF) launched a large operation around Arghandab this week to counter Taliban forces, local officials said.

At least 20 Taliban were killed in the fighting around Arghandab on Monday and Tuesday and another 25 wounded, Kandahar police chief Sayed Agha Saqib told Reuters. There were no casualties among Afghan or foreign troops, he said.

The sound of explosions from the fighting could be heard in Kandahar overnight, residents said.

Taliban spokesman Qari Mohammad Yousuf said insurgents had captured seven checkpoints around Arghandab and inflicted large numbers of casualties on Afghan and foreign troops.

Mainly Canadian forces around Kandahar have been engaged in heavy fighting mainly to the west of city, the Taliban's de-facto capital when they ruled Afghanistan from 1996 till 2001.

But the death of tribal leader Mullah Naqib two weeks ago left their northern flank exposed, security analysts said.

To the north of Kandahar, Afghan and ISAF troops have also been engaged in a large operation in Uruzgan province.

US-led coalition troops and Afghan forces backed by air power killed several Taliban fighters in Uruzgan yesterday, the US military said.

Elsewhere in Afghanistan, US-led coalition forces killed several insurgents in Ghazni province, southwest of the capital Kabul, after they came under fire while conducting a search operation yesterday.

Coalition troops also killed an insurgent in Kunar province, eastern Afghanistan on Tuesday, during an operation to capture those helping foreign al Qaeda fighters.

Fighting has surged across southern Afghanistan over the past week as both sides attempt to consolidate positions before the onset of winter.

After their heavy defeat in late 2001, the Taliban quietly regrouped as US political and military leaders ''took their eyes off the ball'' to concentrate on Iraq, security analysts say, and relaunched their insurgency two years ago.

The last two years have been the bloodiest in Afghanistan since 2001, with some 7,000 people killed.

REUTERS SYU DS1400

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