KANDAHAR, Afghanistan – A pair of deadly Taliban ambushes of civilian convoys left 30 people dead, officials said Monday, as coalition and Afghan forces killed at least 11 militants in an ongoing U.S.-led offensive across southern Afghanistan.
More than 10,000 coalition and Afghan troops are fanning out across four volatile southern provinces to try to kill or capture Taliban militants launching attacks from towering mountain ranges. They have been responsible for the deadliest spate of violence since the extremist regime was toppled in 2001 by a U.S.-led invasion force.
But despite Operation Mountain Thrust's launch, the bloodshed has continued.
Early Sunday, a former district chief in Helmand province, Jama Gul, was killed along with his four bodyguards on the highway outside of Sangin district, relatives and officials said.
Hours later, militants ambushed a convoy carrying about 40 of the slain official's relatives who were traveling to collect his body, killing 25 people and wounding four, said Gul's brother, lawmaker Dad Mohammed Khan.
Khan, a former provincial intelligence chief, said a brother and nephew of Gul's were among the dead, while 10 people remained missing.
"We don't know whether they are dead or alive," Khan said.
In separate clashes, Afghan and coalition soldiers killed 11 militants in Uruzgan and Zabul provinces, where Mountain Thrust is being conducted, Afghan officials said Monday.
U.S. and Afghan forces raided a mountain Taliban stronghold near Tirin Kot, Uruzgan's provincial capital, and killed seven militants Sunday, said local Afghan army commander Gen. Rahmatullah Roufi.
After three hours of fighting, four wounded militants were arrested while others escaped into the mountains, Roufi said. Troops confiscated 11 AK-47 rifles, six rocket-propelled grenades and four machine guns.
In neighboring Zabul province, coalition forces killed four suspected Taliban militants Sunday in the mountainous Khak-e-Afghan district, said provincial police chief Noor Mohammed. Two wounded militants were arrested.
"We're going to continue putting heavy pressure on insurgent sanctuaries and known areas of operation in order to rid this country of those who seek only to destroy and prevent progress," Maj. Gen. Benjamin C. Freakley, the top American commander in Afghanistan, said in a statement.
Operation Mountain Thrust is the largest military offensive since the Taliban's 2001 ouster. Since it rolled out in earnest last week, about 100 suspected militants have been killed. At least nine coalition soldiers have died in combat since mid-May.
More than 600 people, mostly militants, have been killed in the past month as insurgents launched increasingly bold attacks, including suicide bombings and ambushes, against coalition forces.
U.S. soldiers have moved deep into remote southern Afghan mountains, setting up positions aimed at blocking Taliban movement and supply routes.
For the first time in several years Sunday, coalition soldiers ventured into Baghran Valley in the northern part of Helmand province, quickly setting up artillery and fortified defenses on a high ridge line overlooking routes below.
"We are the focus of Mountain Thrust right now," said Capt. Jared Wilson. "This is the decisive part of the operation because if we do not get on the mountain, we will not be able to accomplish this mission."