KABUL, Afghanistan – Afghan troops backed by American warplanes killed as many as 70 militants in a daylong battle near the Pakistani border, in one of the bloodiest clashes since the fall of the Taliban (search), military officials said Tuesday.
Only two Afghan soldiers were reported dead in the fighting, indicating the militants vulnerability to American air power while raising fresh suspicions that they are using Pakistan as a base for operations.
An Afghan commander claimed government forces heard militant radio messages in Arabic and the Chechen language, suggesting Al Qaeda (search) fighters were involved.
"We could hear the enemy," said Gen. Nawab, an Afghan commander who uses just one name. "I'm sure there were foreigners involved."
The battle began at about 2 a.m. Monday, when dozens of militants armed with rockets, mortars and machine-guns hit a border post in Khost province, a former Al Qaeda stronghold about 120 miles south of the capital, Kabul.
The U.S. military said it sent a B-1 bomber, A-10 ground-attack aircraft and helicopter gunships and flew in Afghan reinforcements, eventually forcing the assailants to flee "in panic."
American spokesman Maj. Rick Peat said pilots flying over the area after dawn reported seeing 40 to 50 bodies on the battlefield near the mountainous Pakistani border. Several wrecked vehicles were also spotted.
Nawab put the rebel toll as high as 70, saying the militants had dragged away many dead and injured as they retreated into Pakistan. Afghan forces had recovered only ten dead bodies from the scene of the fighting, he said.
The U.S. military said one of more than 100 Afghan soldiers involved in the fighting was killed and three others injured. However, another Afghan commander, Khial Baz, said two of his men were fatally wounded.
Peat said no U.S. ground troops were involved.
The death toll appeared among the heaviest since the aerial poundings of Taliban troops by U.S. planes before the hard-line regime folded in late 2001, and confirms a surge in violence in the run-up to October presidential elections.
Assaults led by U.S. Marines in a Taliban stronghold in southern Afghanistan in May and June killed more than 100 militants, commanders have said, but it was unclear how many had fallen in a single engagement.
"The coalition and Afghan security forces continue to reap outstanding results" against militants, a U.S. statement said, "refusing to allow them to gather enough strength to affect progress toward a democratic government in Afghanistan."
Khost borders Pakistan's Waziristan tribal area, where officials in Islamabad say hundreds of foreign fighters have found refuge among sympathetic Pashtun tribesmen, the same ethnic group from which the Taliban draws its main strength.
Pakistani troops have mounted a string of operations in an attempt to crush the militants, sparking battles that have left scores of dead this year. American officials said recently they had no firm fix on the whereabouts of Al Qaeda leaders Usama bin Laden and Ayman al-Zawahri, who could also have found refuge in the area.
Peat said it was unclear if the attack in Khost was a response to that increased pressure, which has won praise from American commanders, or to a spate of high-profile arrests of suspected Al Qaeda members in Pakistan.
Elsewhere in Afghanistan, militants opposed to U.S.-backed President Hamid Karzai have also targeted aid workers and government officials. At least ten workers and guards helping prepare for landmark elections in October have died so far this year.
In the latest incident, a bomb hit a vehicle carrying a local mayor and a judge in central Afghanistan on Sunday, missing the apparent targets but killing three of the judge's children.
The minors, aged 4 to 10, were in the open rear of the pickup truck when it was hit by a bomb attached to a bicycle in Logar province, local military commander Atiqullah Ludin said.
The officials were unhurt.