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Afghan official: Taliban routed near Kandahar
Afghanistan Violenc 5080774
Britain soldiers with the International Security Assistance Force (ISAF) stands at the gate of their temporary base in the city of Kandahar province south of Kabul, Afghanistan on Thursday June 19, 2008. Afghan and NATO troops backed by warplanes drove Taliban militants from villages within striking distance of southern Afghanistan's main city on Thursday, killing 56 of them, Afghan officials said. - photo by Associated Press
    ARGHANDAB, Afghanistan — A swift offensive by Afghan and NATO forces has driven Taliban militants from a strategic group of villages outside southern Afghanistan’s largest city and killed 56 insurgents, Afghan officials said Thursday.
    Gen. Mohammad Zahir Azimi, spokesman for the Defense Ministry, said the Afghan National Army had seized control of the villages. Two Afghan soldiers and one civilian were also reported killed.
    NATO said the first 24 hours of the operation in Arghandab had been ‘‘very successful.’’
    ‘‘No large formation of insurgents were met or spotted. Only minor incidents occurred,’’ alliance spokesman Maj. Gen. Carlos Branco said at a news conference with Azimi. ‘‘The insurgents who were there, were evidently not in the numbers or with the foothold that they have claimed.’’
    Mark Laity, another NATO spokesman, said the alliance launched a ‘‘limited number’’ of airstrikes overnight. He had no definite figure for casualties.
    The deputy commander of Afghan forces in Kandahar, Aminullah Pathyani, also said militants had been pushed out of the remaining six villages they still controlled on Wednesday.
    Afghan officials have said that the Taliban infiltrated 10 villages in the Arghandab river valley, a fruit-growing region just 10 miles northwest of Kandahar city. Arghandab is a key military vantage point sought by the Taliban for its proximity to the city, their former power base.
    Afghan officials have said that up to 400 militants poured into the Arghandab area. That followed a bold Taliban attack on the Kandahar prison last Friday that freed 900 inmates, including 400 Taliban fighters.
    U.S. and NATO officials have repeatedly played down the scope of the Taliban push into Arghandab. But the swift military response — 1,400 Afghan soldiers were rushed by air and road to Kandahar — and the fighter aircraft dedicated by NATO suggest that keeping Arghandab clear of militants is an urgent priority.
    Azimi said two Afghan soldiers were killed and two more wounded. The 56 insurgents killed included several foreign fighters, he said. Kandahar Gov. Asadullah Khalid said one civilian also was killed in a gunbattle during the operation.
    Journalists could not access the combat zone, and it was not immediately to get independent confirmation of the casualty figures.
    It was unclear when the hundreds of families who fled the area before the fighting would be able to return. Azimi said troops were still combing the area for any militants still hiding there as well as checking for mines and bombs.
    Branco said the displaced villagers were staying with friends and relatives in Kandahar and other areas and that there was ‘‘no humanitarian crisis.’’
    Khalid spoke to reporters on the roof of a shrine which gives a view over the Arghandab River into the contested area. An Associated Press reporter saw Afghan and Canadian troops moving in convoys but no signs of combat, or of any villagers returning.
    Khalid claimed that, in all, ‘‘hundreds’’ of militants had been killed or wounded in the fighting.
    Echoing the recent words of President Hamid Karzai, he warned Taliban leaders Mullah Omar and Baitullah Mehsud — the latter Pakistan’s top Taliban commander — that their fighters will be ‘‘punished’’ for carrying out terrorist activities in Afghanistan.
    Karzai threatened to send Afghan troops into Pakistan to tackle Taliban militants believed to operate from there — an outburst that cooled Kabul’s already tense relations with Islamabad.
    Meanwhile, the Taliban announced on a Web site used by the militants that a group of suicide bombers had entered Kandahar city to attack Canadian and Afghan troops and government officials, according to the SITE Intelligence Group, an organization that monitors militant Web sites.
    Branco said police dismantled several bombs in the city on Wednesday thanks to tip-offs, but insisted the city was enjoying ‘‘relative calm and remains firmly under the control of the Afghan government and its people.’’
    Associated Press writers Rahim Faiez and Jason Straziuso in Kabul contributed to this report.

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