KABUL, Afghanistan – U.S. warplanes and attack helicopters opened fire on a group of suspected rebels in southern Afghanistan (search) Sunday after the ambush of a coalition convoy, killing up to 20 militants, the U.S. military said.
The airstrikes occurred in southern Helmand (search) province after rebels had pinned down coalition ground troops with rocket and small-arms fire, the military said in a statement.
The fighting is the latest in a string of attacks and battlefield engagements across the south that have raised fears that Taliban (search) rebels and their Al Qaeda allies are regrouping.
"Initial battle-damage assessments indicate 15 to 20 enemies died and an enemy vehicle was destroyed," the military said. No U.S. soldiers were injured.
Spokesman Lt. Col. Jerry O'Hara vowed the military would "destroy those that stand against Afghan and coalition forces at every opportunity."
Elsewhere in Helmand province, gunmen shot to death three civilians — a judge, an intelligence worker and an employee of the provincial education department, said Haji Mohammed Wali, a spokesman for the governor.
He said it was not clear whether the Taliban or some other armed group was behind the Saturday night attack.
Some 260 suspected rebels and 29 U.S. troops have been killed in the surging violence, according to Afghan and U.S. officials. About three dozen Afghan police and soldiers also have died in that time, as have more than 100 civilians.
Afghan and American officials have warned they expect more bloodshed ahead of key parliamentary elections scheduled for September.
In other violence Sunday, three rockets smashed into the southern city of Kandahar, jolting residents but causing no casualties.
One of the rockets hit an empty lot near the former home of fugitive Taliban leader Mullah Mohammed Omar, which now houses U.S. special forces troops, said Gen. Salim Khan, the deputy police chief. The other two hit elsewhere in the city.
Khan blamed Taliban rebels for the attack, and U.S. troops cordoned off the area next to Mullah Omar's old home.
"The one rocket hit right next to Mullah Omar's home, and two other rockets hit fields in Kandahar city," said Khan. "The Taliban did this. Nobody else would do such a thing."
Also Sunday, the defense ministry announced that Hazrat Ali, the former Taliban intelligence and information chief, was captured Friday in a national army operation this past week in central Ghazni province. Defense Ministry spokesman Zaher Murat said no soldiers were injured in the operation.
Elsewhere, a land mine exploded on a road in Khost, damaging a vehicle. Mohammed Ayub, chief of police in the province, said the mine was rigged to explode via remote control and the target was a U.N. vehicle. But Adrian Edwards, the United Nations spokesman in Afghanistan, said no U.N. vehicles were in the province at the time of the attack early Sunday.
A purported Taliban spokesman, meanwhile, claimed responsibility for the ambush of a police convoy in southern Afghanistan, and said insurgents had killed a district police chief after taking him captive.
Mullah Latif Hakimi said 10 other officers captured in the Thursday ambush were alive. He said the police chief was killed for collaborating with the U.S.-led coalition.
Hakimi often calls news organizations to claim responsibility for attacks on behalf of the Taliban. His information has sometimes proven untrue or exaggerated, and his exact tie to the group's leadership is unclear.