MIANA SHIEN, Afghanistan – Afghan forces scouring mountains in the country's south found the bodies of 76 suspected militants killed during a blistering barrage of their camps by Afghan and U.S. forces, the Defense Ministry said Saturday.
Meanwhile, Afghan government and U.S. military leaders met with tribal chiefs in a tent on a dusty plateau near the battlefield and urged them to help fight militants still holding out.
In all, a total of 178 militants have been killed and 56 suspected insurgents have been captured since Tuesday in some of the deadliest fighting since the fall of the Taliban (search) four years ago, ministry spokesman Zahir Marad (search) said.
"Our forces have collected the bodies of 76 more rebels from the battlefield," Marad said, adding that the corpses were scattered across a wide mountainous area in and around the Miana Shien district of Kandahar province.
The U.S. military's toll of insurgents killed was 56, but American spokesman Lt. Col. Jerry O'Hara said this did not make the government's figure necessarily wrong because Afghan forces had taken the lead in the operation and U.S.-led coalition troops were finding it hard to keep a tally of the dead.
O'Hara said there had been no major fighting in the region since Thursday.
But Gen. Salim Khan, a police commander on the battlefield, said his forces have maintained their pursuit of rebels fleeing on horseback and motorcycle.
Government and U.S. military leaders, meanwhile, met in Miana Shien on Saturday with about 35 tribal chiefs to urge them to help battle the Taliban.
Dozens of Afghan and American troops guarded the meeting, which was attended by the governors of Zabul and Kandahar provinces, a U.S. military commander and other top officials.
Ali Khail, a spokesman for the Zabul governor (search), said the officials urged the tribal leaders to cooperate in "fighting off the Taliban."
The government is trying to find out why the Taliban is so active in the region, Khail told The Associated Press.
O'Hara said the "long-term goal (of the meeting) is to determine how we can prevent the Taliban from having any influence in this area."
About 80 Taliban fighters were believed to be still in the mountains holding out against Afghan and coalition forces.
Marad said two Taliban commanders, Mullah Dadullah (search) and Mullah Brader (search), are believed to be surrounded in the mountainous region. Both are well-known names in the hard-line movement, accused of orchestrating attacks across much of Afghanistan's violence-ridden south.
Purported Taliban spokesman Mullah Latif Hakimi on Friday denied that either man was surrounded, and said the government's death toll was exaggerated.
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.
About 465 suspected insurgents have been reported killed since March, after snows melted on mountain trails used by the rebels. In the same period, 29 U.S. troops, 38 Afghan police and soldiers and 125 civilians have been killed.