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Afghan, U.S. Forces Hunt Fleeing Taliban; Pakistan Renews Efforts

Afghan and U.S. forces scoured gorges and rugged mountain peaks in southern Zabul for suspected Taliban fleeing fighting that left scores of insurgents dead, an Afghan commander said Thursday.

While Afghan officials claimed victory, the U.S. military said the battle in Zabul's Dai Chupan (search) district was not over.

Separately, at least 24 Pakistani military helicopters swooped in low over the tribal regions that border Afghanistan in a renewed hunt for fleeing Al Qaeda and Taliban, witnesses said Thursday.

Government officials, who spoke on condition of anonymity, said several of the helicopters carried "foreign" forces, an apparent reference to U.S. troops.

The U.S. military earlier deployed an unknown number of special forces into Pakistan's rugged tribal regions, but their whereabouts are kept secret and they keep a low profile, largely because of the deeply conservative nature of the region.

The Dai Chupan district in Afghanistan was the site of a nine-day offensive and some of the heaviest fighting since the ouster of the ruling Taliban in late 2001.

"The operation is ongoing, we are still searching for the enemy. We are not completed in Dai Chupan," U.S. military spokesman Maj. Ralf Marino said Thursday at Bagram Air Base, north of the Afghan capital, Kabul.

The main Afghan commander in the area, Haji Saifullah Khan (search), said the guerrilla fighters who escaped the battlefield have scattered in small groups to save havens in neighboring provinces.

"It is not known so far whether Taliban leaders were among the dead," Khan said. "Many of the bodies were in bad shape."

Afghan troops have found the bodies of at least 124 rebels since the joint offensive by Afghan government and U.S.-led forces began early last week, Zabul Intelligence Chief Khalil Hotak said. Five Afghan government troops were killed in the fighting, he said.

Hotak's account could not be independently verified. U.S. officials have put the confirmed death toll among the insurgents at just 37, but they have not updated that figure since Monday.

Marino said Thursday that it was too early to give a death toll.

Khan said the U.S. forces laid siege to mountain caves in Larzab and Sairo Ghar mountains of Zabul province and Afghan soldiers moved in when the fighting ended.

The hostilities, triggered by a wave of Taliban attacks on Afghan officials, police and aid workers in the south and east of the country, have underscored the security problems faced by the administration of President Hamid Karzai (search) that took power soon after the Taliban's ouster by U.S.-led forces in 2001.

While Kabul-based diplomats and Afghan officials say there is little threat to the government, the capacity of the Taliban to mass hundreds of fighters in one place has shown how precarious its control is over parts of the country.

There was no indication of who was being sought in the border area with neighboring Pakistan or whether fresh intelligence was available about fugitives in the area.

U.S. and Afghan officials repeatedly have said that fugitive Al Qaeda and Taliban have taken refuge in Pakistan's' tribal regions, where tribesmen have openly expressed a willingness to hide the fugitives.

Pakistan authorities also haven't dismissed the possibility that suspected terrorist mastermind Usama bin Laden might have taken refuge in the tribal regions.

Radical Islamic lawmakers who rule in northwest Pakistan demanded a halt to government sweeps there, saying they did not want U.S. forces in the tribal regions.

"This kind of operation has jeopardized the independence and sovereignty of our country," said Ikramullah Shahid, the deputy speaker of the legislature, which is ruled by an alliance of six religious parties.

"No country has the right to trample our geographic frontiers and carry out operations on our land," Shahid said to loud thumping of desks from his supporters.