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Over 165 Taliban Killed in Southern Afghanistan

Two battles killed more than 165 Taliban fighters and a U.S.-led coalition soldier in southern Afghanistan on Wednesday as President Hamid Karzai prepared to discuss the escalating violence with President Bush in New York.

One of the clashes began Tuesday when several dozen insurgents attacked a joint coalition-Afghan patrol with machine guns, mortars and rocket-propelled grenades near the Taliban-controlled town of Musa Qala in Helmand province, with Taliban reinforcements flowing in all day, a coalition statement said.

The coalition said it returned artillery fire and called in fighter aircraft, killing more than 100 of the Taliban fighters. One coalition soldier was killed and four wounded.

The coalition said there were no immediate reports of civilian deaths or injuries.

Taliban militants overran Musa Qala in February, four months after British troops left the town following a contentious peace agreement that handed over security responsibilities to Afghan elders. Musa Qala has been in control of Taliban fighters ever since.

Situated in northern Helmand province, Musa Qala and the region around it have seen the heaviest fighting in Afghanistan this year. It is also in the middle of the country's poppy-growing belt.

In neighboring Uruzgan province, more than 80 Taliban fighters attacked a joint Afghan and coalition patrol from bunkers near the village of Kakrak in a six-hour battle Tuesday night, the coalition said.

Coalition artillery and air support bombarded Taliban positions, killing more than 65 insurgents, it said.

Three civilians were wounded in the crossfire, it said. No Afghan or coalition forces were hurt.

The battle took place near an area where more than three dozen insurgents were killed as they prepared an ambush six days ago, the coalition said.

The huge clashes come as Karzai prepared to meet with Bush in New York on the sidelines of the U.N. General Assembly in New York. Bush is seeking assurances that Karzai is dealing with Afghanistan's soaring drug trade and security problems.

Afghan opium poppy cultivation hit a record high this year, fueled by Taliban militants and corrupt government officials, a U.N. report found last month. The country produces nearly all the world's opium, and Taliban insurgents are profiting.

More than 4,500 people have died in insurgency-related violence this year, according to an Associated Press count based on figures from Afghan and Western officials. Most were militant but at least 600 civilians were among those killed.

On Tuesday, about 400 villagers blocked a major highway during a protest after two civilians — a father and son — were killed by international forces who were conducting a search operation in the Zhari district of Kandahar province, villagers said.

Spokesmen from both NATO and the coalition said they had no reports of any search operations or civilian deaths in Zhari.

Habibullah Jan, a lawmaker from Sanzari village, said NATO forces surrounded the village and killed the father and son. He warned that if international forces continued to target civilians, villagers would turn against them.

In the past week, international forces "arrested innocent villagers from three homes, calling them Taliban. Everyone knows that we don't let the Taliban into our area," said Karim Khan, one of the protesters.