ARGHANDAB, Afghanistan, (AP) – Afghan and NATO forces have cleared Taliban militants from a strategic group of villages they had infiltrated outside southern Afghanistan’s largest city, Afghan officials said Thursday.
Kandahar Gov. Asadullah Khalid said militants fled the villages in Arghandab district after overnight battles and airstrikes. Khalid claimed “hundreds” of Taliban were wounded or killed over the last several days of fighting.
NATO officials have not confirmed that figure or said whether Arghandab is now militant-free. But NATO spokesman Mark Laity did confirm that the alliance launched a “limited number of successful airstrikes” overnight.
“We don’t have a definitive assessment, though casualties were inflicted,” Laity said. “The main point is that it has helped ensure the continuing success of the mission.”
Laity said the joint Afghan-NATO mission is progressing through Arghandab “methodically and successfully” and has met minimal resistance.
The deputy commander of Afghan forces in Kandahar, Aminullah Pathyani, said Thursday that militants had been pushed out of the remaining six villages they controlled on Wednesday.
Afghan officials have said the Taliban infiltrated 10 villages in the Arghandab river valley, a lush fruit-filled region just 10 miles northwest of Kandahar city. Arghandab is a strategic military vantage point sought by the Taliban for its proximity to their former power base.
The Afghan army on Monday said up to 400 militants poured into Arghandab. That followed a Taliban attack on the Kandahar prison last Friday that freed 900 inmates, including 400 Taliban fighters.
But Canadian military officials who patrolled through Arghandab this week reported “no obvious signs” of insurgent activity. That didn’t mean, however, that there were no Taliban there, a NATO news release said.
U.S. and NATO officials have repeatedly played down the scope of the Taliban push into Arghandab. But the swift military response — 700 Afghan soldiers flew to Kandahar on a moment’s notice — and the fighter aircraft dedicated by NATO suggest that keeping Arghandab free from militants is an urgent priority.
The Afghan Defense Ministry said Wednesday that more than 36 Taliban fighters were killed in two villages in Arghandab. Two Afghan soldiers were also killed, the ministry said in a statement. Twelve other militants were killed in Maiwand, a separate district in Kandahar province.
Meanwhile, the Taliban announced on a Web site used by the militants that a group of suicide bombers had entered Kandahar city on Wednesday to attack Canadian and Afghan troops and government officials, according to the SITE Intelligence Group, an organization that monitors militant Web sites.
Laity, the NATO spokesman, said officials are always alert to the threat of suicide bombs, but he said the Taliban frequently claim to have many more bombers than they actually do as a scare tactic.