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Battle in Afghanistan kills 41 Taliban-governor

Written by: Staff
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KANDAHAR, Afghanistan, Apr 15 (Reuters) Afghan forces and coalition helicopter gunships attacked a suspected Taliban hideout in southern Afghanistan, triggering a fierce battle that killed 41 militants, a provincial governor said today.

Six Afghan policemen were also killed, but there were no casualties among the US-led forces in yesterday's battle in the Zare Dasht district of Kandahar province, Kandahar Governor Assadullah Khalid told a news conference in Kandahar city.

A number of militants' bodies had been recovered, he said.

A senior provincial official who declined to be named said government forces suffered high casualties as several rockets mistakenly hit them.

Taliban forces have stepped up attacks on Afghan and coalition forces since announcing last month they had launched a spring offensive.

A Taliban spokesman, Qari Mohammad Yousuf, put Taliban deaths at only three and said there were ''high casualties among Afghan and foreign forces''.

Four civilians were also killed, residents said.

Khalid, the Kandahar governor, said some of the heaviest fighting in weeks erupted after Afghan and coalition forces came under attack during a search operation for Taliban hiding in the area.

Separately, Taliban gunmen killed a district chief and three policemen in neighbouring Helmand province in an ambush today, deputy provincial governor Amir Mohammad said.

The Taliban spokesman said seven policemen were killed in that ambush, but Mohammad denied that.

US-led forces killed six Taliban in an air strike in eastern Afghanistan yesterday. A blast elsewhere killed three policemen, while two British troops from the NATO-led peacekeeping mission were wounded in a suicide attack in Helmand.

Despite the increased fighting, the US army plans to cut its 19,000-strong force in Afghanistan to 16,500 this year.

Thousands of NATO-led troops from Britain, Canada and the Netherlands are due to deploy in the south where the militants are mostly active.

US-led troops overthrew the Taliban government in Kabul after its leaders refused to hand over al Qaeda chief Osama bin Laden, architect of the Sept. 11, 2001 attacks on the United States.

REUTERS SHB RN1816

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