KANDAHAR, Afghanistan – NATO-led and Afghan troops backed by air power clashed with suspected Taliban militants in southern Afghanistan, leaving up to 30 militants dead and 15 wounded, a provincial police chief said Wednesday.
NATO and Afghan troops surrounded a compound believed to be a Taliban base in Kajaki district, Helmand province, and fought a five-hour battle Tuesday with the militants inside, including airstrikes, said Helmand police chief Ghulam Nabi Mulakhel.
NATO confirmed the clash but gave no militant casualty figures. The toll could not be confirmed independently because of the remote location of the battlefield.
There were no casualties among NATO or Afghan troops, officials said.
Police recovered some bodies of militants, as well as assault rifles, heavy machine guns and rocket-propelled grenade launchers, Mulakhel said.
The fighting came during a relative lull in the violence that has assailed Afghanistan in the past year, but as the country braces for renewed fighting in the spring.
Last year, the Taliban launched a record number of attacks, and some 4,000 people, most of them militants, died in insurgency-related violence, according to a tally by The Associated Press based on reports from Afghan, NATO and U.S.-led coalition officials.
A NATO spokesman said Wednesday that Taliban militants were expected to step up their attacks soon, but did not have the capability to launch a "spring offensive."
"We do not believe that there will be a spring offensive by the Taliban," NATO spokesman Brig. Gen. Richard Nugee said. "There will be an upward surge in violence as the weather gets better ... I don't think it will amount to an offensive. An offensive is a very symbolic phrase, it means a huge upsurge in a very short amount of time. We just don't think that will happen."
"We believe that they have been degraded and are starting to appear in less good condition than they started last year," Nugee added.
But his comments came just two days after Maj. Gen. David M. Rodriguez, the incoming commander of U.S. troops in Afghanistan, said he expects Taliban militants to launch more suicide attacks this year than in 2006, when they launched 139 — a record number.
Rodriguez, speaking Monday, added that military leaders expect an increase in all kinds of attacks as the weather gets warmer. The onset of spring melts snows on mountain passes used by insurgents and usually heralds more attacks in the south and east of the country.
In other violence, a rocket fired from Pakistan hit a police border post in eastern Paktika province on Wednesday, killing three police and wounding two, said Ghami Mohammadi, the governor's spokesman. Afghan and U.S. officials say rockets are frequently fired from Pakistan into Afghanistan, although Pakistan says it does all it can to police the border.
In Nangarhar province, a suicide bomber blew himself up close to the border with Pakistan, said Interior Ministry spokesman Zemeri Bashary. The target of the attack wasn't known. No one else was hurt.
In the south, Afghanistan's intelligence service said it arrested four people crossing into Kandahar province from Pakistan about two weeks ago. The group had a suicide vest and four remote-controlled bombs in their vehicle, officials said Wednesday.
Using information provided by the group, officials later arrested two alleged would-be suicide bombers in a madrassa in Arghandab district of Kandahar. The two men were Pakistani, the intelligence service said.