Afghan Forces Kill 49 Taliban Militants in Helmand Province

Fighting between Afghan forces and Taliban militants in a volatile southern province has left at least 49 militants and seven police dead in what appears to be the biggest independent operation yet by Afghan forces, officials said Friday.

The Afghan army and police carried out the operation in the Gereshk district of Helmand province Thursday morning, and NATO-led troops were not involved, said Gen. Mohammad Zahir Azimi, the Defense Ministry spokesman.

Azimi said 49 Taliban bodies had been found and estimated the overall militant death total at 69, saying the Taliban had buried 10 bodies and taken 10 bodies from the battlefield. Seven police were killed.

The troops were conducting searches on Friday following the Thursday clash, the largest independent operation by the fledgling Afghan security forces, Azimi said.

"They showed the capacity and capability of Afghanistan's National Army, without the help of foreign troops," Azimi said.

Lt. Col. Angela Billings, a spokeswoman for NATO's International Security Assistance Force, confirmed that ISAF troops did not take part in the operation, part of a major joint push by alliance and Afghan troops against the Taliban-inspired insurgency in the country's south.

"There's more and more instances where we're stepping back further and further as we continue with the training, of the army and police, said Billings.

About 4,500 NATO and 1,000 Afghan forces are in and around Helmand province as part of Operation Achilles, launched this month. In recent months Taliban militants and foreign fighters have streamed into Helmand province, the world's leading opium-producing region, according to U.S. and NATO officials.

Operation Achilles has seen heavy fighting between British forces stationed in Helmand province and Taliban militants, but neither NATO or Afghan officials have reported any large-scale casualties among Taliban fighters during the operation.

Violence in Afghanistan has spiked over the last year, with Taliban militants setting off a record number of roadside and suicide attacks. U.S. and NATO officials say they expect violence to again increase this spring and summer.