KABUL, Afghanistan – Afghan and U.S.-led coalition forces surrounded a rebel hide-out in southern Afghanistan on Thursday, and the number of insurgents killed from three days of fighting rose to 102, the defense ministry said.
The battle was one of the deadliest since the Taliban's ouster more than three years ago and was sure to add to growing anxiety that an Iraq-style conflict is developing here.
Two Taliban commanders, Mullah Dadullah (search) and Mullah Brader (search), are believed to be fighting alongside hundreds of rebel holdouts, said Defense Ministry spokesman Zahir Marad. Both are well known names in the Taliban rebellion, accused of orchestrating attacks across much of Afghanistan's violence-ridden south.
"A total of 102 Taliban have been killed since the fighting started on Tuesday," Marad said, 26 more than were reported on Wednesday evening. "These deaths will have a huge impact on the rebels. Many are trying to flee. But we have them surrounded."
The U.S. military Wednesday put the rebel death toll at 49. Lt. Cindy Moore, a spokeswoman for the force, said there had been no update since then and referred questions to the Afghan government.
Gen. Salim Khan, commander of 400 Afghan policemen who took part in the fighting, said the insurgents had been hit hard.
"Their camps were decimated. Bodies lay everywhere. Heavy machine guns and AK-47s were scattered alongside blankets, kettles and food," he told The Associated Press. "Some of the Taliban were also killed in caves where they were hiding and U.S. helicopters came and pounded them."
American AC-130 gunships, AH-64 Apache helicopters, A-10 attack planes and Harrier jump jets bombarded the rebels and had a "devastating effect on their forces," said another U.S. spokesman, Lt. Col. Jerry O'Hara.
Gen. Ayub Salangi, the police chief for Kandahar province (search) where much of the fighting has occurred, said the massive assault on the rebels was in response to a Taliban ambush of a government convoy last week that left a local police commander and six of his men dead.
The local government chief was believed kidnapped in that assault, but Salangi said investigators have determined that he was actually a member of the Taliban and may have orchestrated the ambush.
About 390 suspected insurgents have been reported killed since rebel attacks began increasing in 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.
The bloodshed has raised concerns that the war is widening, rather than winding down. U.S. and Afghan officials have warned that violence could get even worse before parliamentary elections scheduled for September.
Afghan officials blame the rise in violence on insurgents sneaking in from Pakistan and are urging the government in Islamabad to crack down on militants there. On Sunday, Afghan intelligence agents foiled a plot by three Pakistanis to assassinate Zalmay Khalilzad, the outgoing U.S. ambassador.
Meanwhile, Spain announced it will send 500 more soldiers to Afghanistan to help provide security for parliamentary elections in September, increasing its troop presence there to nearly 800. The new troops will start deploying in July for a 90-day mission.