KABUL, Afghanistan – At least 50 people were killed in widespread violence across Afghanistan on Wednesday, as NATO nations failed to agree on calls by military commanders for 2,500 extra troops to help crush the growing Taliban-led insurgency.
The ferocity of the Taliban resurgence since their 2001 ouster has taken U.S. and NATO commanders by surprise, particularly in southern provinces where NATO forces have been clashing daily with militants since taking control of the region on Aug. 1.
NATO announced on Wednesday that 173 people — including 151 Afghan civilians — have been killed in suicide bombings across the country since the start of the year. The remaining victims include NATO and U.S.-led coalition forces and Afghan authorities.
It was the first time NATO released such figures and they indicate the dangerous change in tactics by militants, who have been following the lead of insurgent attacks in Iraq.
U.S. officials announced after a Kabul car bombing Friday that killed 16 — including two American troops — that a suicide bombing cell was hunting foreign troops in the capital.
"Such blatant disregard for human life and potential undertaken by insurgents who callously ask to be called mujahedeen (holy warriors) cannot be more clear," NATO spokesman Maj. Luke Knittig said.
Thousands of Canadian troops reclaimed more contested territory from Taliban fighters in southern Kandahar province insurgent hotbeds of Panjwayi and Zhari.
NATO forces claim to have killed at least 517 militants in both districts since launching a large-scale campaign on Sept. 2 dubbed Operation Medusa.
Purported Taliban spokesman dispute the death toll and claim in videotapes that they are pushing NATO forces to the limit across the vast deserts and mountain ranges of Helmand and Kandahar provinces.
Some 8,000 Canadian, British and Dutch soldiers — almost half of the 20,000-strong NATO force — are leading the anti-Taliban push in the south.
But military chiefs say another 2,500 troops, plus greater air support, would help them crush the Taliban threat more quickly.
In Brussels, allied military experts failed Wednesday to commit more troops, planes and helicopters to the NATO mission, despite a plea by the alliance's American commander, Gen. James L. Jones.
"No formal offers were made at the table," said NATO spokesman James Appathurai. He told a news conference some allies had given "positive indications" on the reinforcements, but suggested final decisions may have to wait until a Sept. 28-29 meeting of NATO defense ministers in Slovenia.
In Kabul, another NATO spokesman, Mark Laity, said NATO forces were only at "85 percent of the capabilities we were told we would have" to fight between 4,000 to 7,000 insurgents believed active in the country.
"These extra forces are needed because we are in a particularly intense environment," Laity told The Associated Press. "But Operation Medusa proves that we have considerable capabilities that we can do a considerable amount with."
In London, British Prime Minister Tony Blair said all NATO members had a responsibility to back the alliance's Afghan cause.
"NATO is looking at what further requirements there are and NATO and NATO countries have got a duty to respond," he told reporters.
In Helmand, police killed 16 Taliban in a mountainous area outside Garmser, a town militants recently took over for the second time in two months, before Afghan and NATO forces claimed it after six days on Monday.
The militants were killed in a four-hour battle that began late Tuesday and continued into Wednesday, police said. Two Taliban were arrested.
Between 20 to 30 militants were killed in Afghan and U.S.-led coalition raids on three villages in central Ghazni province's Andar district, said two Afghan officials.
Among the dead included four non-Afghans, a provincial official said. Police said 27 Taliban were wounded and an Afghan soldier killed.
In western Farah province, four police and four insurgents were killed after militants ambushed a police convoy driving between the provinces of Herat and Nimroz, said Farah provincial chief of police, Gen. Sayed Agha Saqeb. A U.N. aid worker was killed Tuesday when militants fired on his car in a remote Farah village.
Afghan officials say the fierce fighting in southern provinces is pushing Taliban militants into safer northern areas, like Farah.
"In some parts of Farah, we are seeing Taliban coming from Helmand and we are planning to attack them," said Saqeb. "But we need more transportation and telecommunications equipment."
A suicide attacker was the sole victim when his bomb exploded inside a Sunni Muslim mosque in Kandahar, police said. The motive for the blast was unclear.
A roadside bomb killed a border police guard chief and three other officers in eastern Kunar province Wednesday, police said.
In the eastern Nangarhar province, where Al Qaeda militants have long been active, two rockets were fired into the provincial capital of Jalalabad several hours before Afghan President Hamid Karzai and the Pakistani premier opened a new road. No casualties were reported.