KANDAHAR, Afghanistan – NATO and Afghan forces killed more than 40 militants Saturday on the fifth anniversary of the death of a legendary mujahedeen commander killed by Al Qaeda days before the Sept. 11 attacks.
The insurgents were killed in Kandahar province's Panjwayi district as part of an anti-Taliban operation launched Sept. 2. The latest deaths brought the number of suspected militants claimed killed by NATO in Operation Medusa to at least 320.
The anti-insurgent blitz came as a top NATO general said he would ask alliance members Monday to provide up to 2,500 more soldiers to combat Afghanistan's deadliest spate of violence since the Taliban regime was ousted in late 2001.
In Kabul, thousands of people attended a memorial ceremony marking the fifth anniversary of the assassination of mujahedeen leader Ahmad Shah Massood, who died in an Al Qaeda suicide bombing in northern Afghanistan two days before the Sept. 11, 2001, attacks on America.
"Massood was a great martyr for this land and like him, today, each son of this country is ready to sacrifice his life to make the nation free," President Hamid Karzai said in a speech. "We are still not free and our nation's children are still being sacrificed like yesterday in Kabul when more people were martyred in a terrorist attack."
Massood fought the Soviet occupation of Afghanistan during the 1980s, and later led the resistance to the Taliban after the Islamic militia seized power in 1996.
In the anti-Taliban push, NATO and Afghan have pounded insurgents in Panjwayi with airstrikes, artillery and mortars in one of the most intense military confrontations since the campaign that toppled the Islamist regime.
The operation comes amid concerns that NATO lacks enough troops to succeed in its mission. In Poland, Gen. Ray Henault, chief of NATO's military committee, said he would formally ask the alliance's 26 member states on Monday to provide the additional 2,500 troops.
NATO, which took command in the south from a U.S.-led coalition on Aug. 1, has deployed about 8,000 mostly British, Canadian and Dutch forces. It has about 20,000 forces nationwide.
In the latest fighting, NATO said it had destroyed three insurgent positions, a bomb-making factory and a weapons cache in the battles that killed more than 40 militants. One NATO soldier was killed Saturday. The soldier's nationality was not immediately released.
Canadian forces are leading the Panjwayi push and have had at least five soldiers killed since the operation began.
A NATO spokesman, Maj. Scott Lundy, said the casualty count was based on reports from troops viewing the battlefield through weapons sights and other devices.
In all, the alliance has reported 330 militant deaths since the Operation Medusa began. NATO's count has been strongly disputed by a Taliban commander and has not been independently verified. Reporters cannot access the site of the fighting.
Troops now occupy parts of Panjwayi and neighboring Zhari district and reopened a section of highway that had been closed to civilian traffic during the operation, NATO said.
"There is severe pressure on the insurgents remaining in the area, which will continue until they are either defeated or choose reconciliation through surrender," said Canadian Brig. Gen. David Fraser, commander of NATO forces in southern Afghanistan.
In Rome, Italian Premier Romano Prodi said Italian troops will remain in Afghanistan despite calls by some government allies for withdrawal after four Italian soldiers were wounded Friday.
Italy has some 1,800 troops in the Afghan cities of Kabul and Herat.