A NATO airstrike early Wednesday destroyed a compound housing a Taliban leader responsible for a wave of violence across southern Afghanistan, the Western alliance said.

NATO said it "believed" it killed a Taliban leader linked to an uprising in the nearby town of Musa Qala, which the Taliban overran on Feb. 1, and to an attack Tuesday against a dam in nearby Kajaki.

"We have removed yet another Taliban enemy leader who will no longer threaten the peace and security of the Afghan people and their future," said Lt. Col. Angela Billings, a spokeswoman for NATO's International Security Assistance Force.

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The airstrike against the compound in a small village a half hour outside Musa Qala killed 20 militants who had sought shelter there the previous night, said Wali Mohammad, a resident of Musa Qala. Neither NATO or Afghan officials could confirm that death toll.

Violence has spiked in the southern province of Helmand the last two weeks. The governor said some 700 foreign fighters are in the region around Musa Qala and Kajaki, in the mountainous northern edge of the province.

NATO and Afghan forces killed 22 Taliban fighters in separate clashes near Musa Qala and Kajaki the last several days, officials said Tuesday.

The government is negotiating with local elders in hopes that Taliban fighters will leave Musa Qala peacefully, though thousands of residents have fled out of fear of an upcoming attack by NATO and Afghan forces.

Col. Tom Collins, a spokesman for the NATO-led force, said Western troops were waiting to see if the dispute could be resolved through negotiations but were ready for military action if the government so requested.

Elsewhere in Helmand province, the country's largest poppy-producing region, auxiliary police protecting a poppy eradication team were hit by a roadside bomb Tuesday that killed two policeman and wounded three, said provincial police chief Eisah Mohammad.

Afghanistan last year suffered its worst bout of violence since the ouster of the Taliban regime in 2001. Some 4,000 people died in insurgency-related violence, according to an Associated Press count based on numbers from U.S., NATO and Afghan officials.

NATO officials say they expect violence to increase this spring and summer after a traditional winter period of peace.

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