KANDAHAR, Afghanistan, Nov 1 (Reuters) Taliban rebels were retreating today after Afghan and Canadian troops halted their effort to take a district guarding the approaches to the main southern city of Kandahar, Canada's military said.
Insurgents have massed in unusually large numbers to attack three district centres in the west and south in the last week and a Taliban leader threatened to extend the offensive northward and maintain its intensity through the harsh Afghan winter.
Taliban fighters attacked the Arghandab district, only 12 km northwest of Kandahar, this week in what Canadian forces said was one of the most organised Taliban offensives they had seen and appeared to be a move towards the city.
But Afghan National Army (ANA) and mostly Canadian troops from the NATO-led International Security Assistance Force (ISAF) struck back, killing at least 50 rebels, according to Afghan police, and battled another 200 to 250 rebel fighters.
''The ANA and the coalition forces are pushing back the insurgents,'' Major Eric Landry told reporters in Kandahar.
''The insurgents are actually fleeing the Arghandab district ... We know they are not being reinforced. They are retreating.
They are heading north,'' he said.
Kandahar ''is stable and is not under any threat at any moment,'' Landry said. Only one Afghan soldier had been killed in the operation.
The area, a lush strip of irrigated land along the banks of a river through the desert, was quiet overnight and there were only sporadic clashes today.
''They are trying to leave pockets of resistance, but they are being ineffective,'' Landry said.
Hundreds of villagers fled the fighting.
''We are certain the local population will come back to their homes in the next days,'' he said.
But as Afghan and ISAF troops also battled to regain another district centre, Gulistan in the western province of Farah, the Taliban overran the neighbouring centre of Bakwa yesterday and more than 400 families fled.
''Bakwa district centre fell into the hands of the Taliban in an attack yesterday afternoon,'' said Maolavi Yahya, the district chief of neighbouring Delaram.
''The Taliban wanted to keep Afghan and foreign troops busy (in Gulistan) as another group of Taliban tactically overran the district centre.'' CHILDREN KILLED ''During the confrontation 14 Taliban insurgents and two Afghan police were killed and the Taliban set the district centre building on fire,'' said Yahya. More than 400 families have fled the fighting and have set up camp by a river, he said.
Prominent Taliban leader Mullah Mansour Dadullah vowed to keep up the fight and extend it north.
''Our operations are blazing across the southern provinces, and we shall reach the northern provinces in the same manner,'' he said in a video posted on the Internet yesterday.
The Taliban campaign of hit-and-run attacks, suicide and roadside bombs, and larger offensives where possible is aimed at convincing Afghans their government and the 50,000 foreign troops in the country cannot provide them with security.
As the fighting drags on, security analysts say, almost inevitable mistakes by the security forces will only help to drive a wedge between the government and the people.
Afghan forces backed by US-led coalition troops killed two children as the soldiers battled with a militant holed up in a compound in the east of the country, the US military said today.
Afghan security forces backed by a small team of coalition troops raided the compound in the Bati Kot district of Nangarhar province after intelligence that a militant was present.
''While resisting multiple requests to surrender, the militant barricaded himself in a room. Unbeknownst to Afghan forces, his family was barricaded in the room with him,'' the US military said in a statement.
''The team began receiving small arms fire after they entered the compound and they returned fire,'' it said. ''It wasn't until after the hostilities had stopped and the team had performed a search of the room that they found two children dead.'' The militant was also killed and a woman and child wounded and treated at a coalition medical facility.
Afghan and Western officials accuse the Taliban of deliberately courting civilian casualties by fighting from homes and built-up areas in order to undermine support for the government and its foreign backers.
Reuters RJ GC2136