KANDAHAR, Afghanistan – Afghan soldiers backed by NATO air power killed more than 50 Taliban fighters during a two-day battle with militants who tried to attack a southern Afghan town near the one they were routed from this week, Afghanistan's Defense Ministry said Wednesday.
Afghan soldiers fought the insurgents in Sangin, a town in Helmand province that neighbors Musa Qala, which Taliban fighters had controlled since February before abandoning it this week in the face of an offensive by Afghan, British and U.S. forces.
"When the terrorists were defeated in Musa Qala, they escaped to Sangin and started firing in and around Sangin," the Defense Ministry said.
Among the 50 militants killed were three foreigners and three commanders, the ministry said. It said no civilians were hurt or killed in the operation.
There was no way to independently verify the death toll at the remote battle site, and NATO's International Security Assistance Force does not release casualty figures for militants.
Taliban militants overran Musa Qala in February, four months after British troops left the town following a contentious peace agreement that gave security responsibilities to Afghan elders. U.S. officials criticized the deal as surrendering to the Taliban.
Afghan, British and U.S. forces moved into Musa Qala's center on Tuesday, and Afghan and British officials have vowed to station troops there to prevent it from falling back into Taliban hands. More than two dozen militants were killed during the battle for Musa Qala, as was one British soldier.
Northern Helmand province is the world's largest opium poppy growing region and has seen the heaviest fighting in Afghanistan this year.
Helmand's governor, Asadullah Wafa, said he and a delegation of officials from the Afghan capital, Kabul, would travel to Musa Qala on Thursday to hand out 5,000 tons of aid, including wheat and blankets, to families who fled the fighting and are now starting to return.
"After 11 months the Afghan flag is again flying over the Musa Qala district center," Wafa said.
All of the tribal leaders in Musa Qala now support the government, Wafa said, adding that Afghan police and army soldiers would have a strong presence there.
Though the militants were pushed out of Musa Qala — an important symbolic victory for Afghan and NATO troops — Taliban fighters still control three remote districts in northern Helmand — Washer, Naw Zad and Bagrhan, said Afghan Defense Ministry spokesman Gen. Mohammad Zahir Azimi. The Afghan-NATO force will continue operations in those areas, he said.
Meanwhile, a suicide car bomb exploded near an Afghan army convoy in the southern city of Kandahar, killing one person, said the provincial police chief, Sayed Agha Saqib. Two soldiers and four civilians were wounded, he said.
This year has been the deadliest since the U.S.-led invasion in 2001. More than 6,300 people have been killed in insurgency-related violence, according to an Associated Press tally of figures from Western and Afghan officials.