KABUL, Afghanistan, AP – Fighting in the high mountains of southern Afghanistan waned Friday, but Afghan troops kept up their pursuit of rebels fleeing one of the deadliest barrages since the fall of the Taliban in 2001, officials said.
Gen. Salim Khan, a police commander at the battlefield, told The Associated Press that the guns had fallen silent Friday, but that his 400-strong force continued to be on high alert.
Since Tuesday, fighting has killed 114 people — including 102 insurgents. Afghan officials say they have dealt the insurgency a body blow, but such claims have been made many times before in a war that refuses to wind down.
Defense Ministry spokesman Zahir Marad said Thursday that two Taliban commanders, Mullah Dadullah and Mullah Brader, are believed to be surrounded in the mountainous region between southern Kandahar and Zabul provinces. Both are well known names in the Taliban rebellion, accused of orchestrating attacks across much of Afghanistan”s violence-ridden south.
"Afghan army officials intercepted their radio conversations" that indicate the men are in the area, Marad said.
Captured insurgents have also said during interrogations that the pair were leading the rebels” battle, Interior Ministry spokesman Latfullah Mashal told The Associated Press Thursday.
Before U.S.-led forces ousted the Taliban in late 2001, Brader held many top jobs in the Islamic militia”s hard-line regime, including being the commander in the capital, Kabul.
Dadullah, who has a wooden leg, was the top general in the country”s north during the Taliban regime, and he has since been accused of ordering the slaying of a Red Cross worker from El Salvador in March 2003.
Mashal said three other lower-ranking Taliban commanders were among the rebels killed. Two of the dead were Chechens, three were Pakistanis and one appeared to be an Arab, said Khan, the police commander.
Twelve Afghan policemen and soldiers have also been killed, officials said.
The U.S. military has reported a lower death toll than the government. On Wednesday, the U.S. command said 49 insurgents had been killed, and there has been no update, with officials referring all queries to the Afghan government.
Mashal said the high rebel casualty toll was the biggest blow to the Taliban in a year.
"Their backbone has been broken. They will no longer be able to attack in a coordinated way," he said.
About 80 rebels were still believed to be in the mountains holding out against Afghan and coalition forces, Mashal said. Others fled on horses and motorbikes toward the Pakistani border, about 120 miles away, he said.
Mashal said most of the intercepted rebel radio conversations were in Urdu, Pakistan”s main language, suggesting many of the fighters were Pakistanis.
Afghan officials blame a recent upsurge in violence on insurgents sneaking in from Pakistan and are urging the government in Islamabad to crack down on militants there.
About 390 suspected insurgents have been reported killed since March, after snows melted on mountain tracks used by the rebels. In the same time, 29 U.S. troops, 38 Afghan police and soldiers and 125 civilians have been killed.