Afghans, NATO kill 50 Taliban, surround 200

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ARGHANDAB, Afghanistan, Oct 31 (Reuters) Afghan and NATO-led troops have killed some 50 Taliban fighters and surrounded up to 250 more close to the main southern city of Kandahar, the provincial police chief said today.

Clashes also broke out in the east, west and north of the country and insurgents massed in unusually large numbers in at least one other region in an apparent surge in violence ahead of the usual winter lull at the end of the ''fighting season''.

Taliban fighters moved into the Arghandab district, only some 12 km from Kandahar, last week 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 an operation this week to wrest back control of the area, local officials said.

Some 50 Taliban have been killed around Arghandab since Monday and at least 25 wounded, said Kandahar police chief Sayed Agha Saqib. But some 200 to 250 Taliban insurgents remain there.

''The rest of the Taliban are surrounded and they cannot escape or be reinforced,'' he told Reuters. Three Afghan police and one Afghan army soldier have also been killed, he said.

''We think they are going for the city of Kandahar,'' Canadian Major Eric Landry told a news conference in the city, the de-facto capital when the Taliban ruled from 1996 to 2001.

''What they're doing is by surrounding the district centres, they are trying to affect the governance of those districts. By doing so, they're trying to get more freedom of movement in the Arghandab district and maybe try to get to the city,'' he said.

But Kandahar, said Landry, ''is not under any threat at the moment.'' It was one of the most organised Taliban attempts to take over a district centre, he said.

''We have sights of groups of 10 to 15 insurgents in different places and they are trying to do synchronised attacks. Because they are in small number and are very divided, they are very ineffective,'' Landry said.

VILLAGERS FLEE The sound of loud explosions could be heard from the small town of Arghandab and at least 20 trucks and tractors carried villagers away from the fighting with their belongings.

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

ISAF said it had not suffered any casualties.

Mainly Canadian forces around Kandahar have been engaged in months of heavy fighting mainly to the west of city. But the death of tribal leader Mullah Naqib two weeks ago left a gap in their defences, security analysts said.

Canadian forces denied they were stretched too thin and short of troops.

''The fact that Mullah Naqib is dead led the insurgents to believe they would get more freedom of movement in the district, but that's not the case,'' said Landry.

In the western province of Farah, Afghan and foreign forces killed more than 50 Taliban in two days of fighting after insurgents overran the district centre of Gulistan.

''There are about 400 Taliban fighters resisting us in the district,'' Ikramuddin Yawar, the police commander of western Afghanistan, told Reuters.

Nine relatives of the Gulistan district chief were killed by the Taliban, his house set on fire and the district chief Qasim Majboor fled the area to the mountains, a close relative said.

Sixteen Afghan police have been killed in the fighting, said an Afghan official who declined to be named.

Elsewhere, US-led coalition forces killed some 30 Taliban in an airstrike in the Gilan district of Ghazni province on Tuesday, Mahbubullah Mazlum, the district chief told Reuters.

The US military said ''several'' insurgents had been killed in the area, southwest of the capital Kabul, after coalition troops came under fire during a search operation yesterday.

After their heavy defeat in late 2001, the Taliban quietly regrouped as US political and military leaders turned their attention to 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 AM BD2052

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