ARGHANDAB, Afghanistan – A swift offensive by Afghan and NATO forces has driven Taliban militants from a strategic group of villages outside southern Afghanistan's largest city and killed 56 insurgents, Afghan officials said Thursday.
Gen. Mohammad Zahir Azimi, spokesman for the Defense Ministry, said the Afghan National Army was now in control of the villages, but that the militants had planted hundreds of land mines in the area before fleeing.
NATO officials have not confirmed that Arghandab was militant-free, or Azimi's report that 56 militants were killed. But NATO spokesman Mark Laity did say the alliance launched a "limited number of successful airstrikes" overnight.
"We don't have a definitive assessment, though casualties were inflicted," Laity said. "The main point is that it has helped ensure the continuing success of the mission."
Laity said the joint Afghan-NATO offensive was progressing through Arghandab "methodically and successfully" and had met minimal resistance.
The deputy commander of Afghan forces in Kandahar, Aminullah Pathyani, said Thursday that militants had been pushed out of the remaining six villages they controlled on Wednesday.
Afghan officials have said the Taliban infiltrated 10 villages in the Arghandab river valley, a lush fruit-filled region just 10 miles (15 kilometers) northwest of Kandahar city. Arghandab is a key military vantage point sought by the Taliban for its proximity to the city, their former power base.
The Afghan army on Monday said up to 400 militants poured into the Arghandab area. That followed a bold Taliban attack on the Kandahar prison last Friday that freed 900 inmates, including 400 Taliban fighters.
Canadian military officials who patrolled through Arghandab this week reported "no obvious signs" of insurgent activity. But that didn't mean there were no Taliban there, a NATO statement said.
U.S. and NATO officials have repeatedly played down the scope of the Taliban push into Arghandab. But the swift military response — 700 Afghan soldiers flew to Kandahar on a moment's notice — and the fighter aircraft dedicated by NATO suggest that keeping Arghandab clear of militants is an urgent priority.
The Afghan Defense Ministry said two Afghan soldiers were killed. Twelve other militants were killed in Maiwand, a separate district in Kandahar province.
Echoing the recent words of President Hamid Karzai, Kandahar Gov. Asadullah Khalid warned Taliban leaders Mullah Omar and Baitullah Mehsud — the latter Pakistan's top Taliban commander — that their fighters will be "punished" for carrying out terrorist activities in Afghanistan.
Meanwhile, the Taliban announced on a Web site used by the militants that a group of suicide bombers had entered Kandahar city to attack Canadian and Afghan troops and government officials, according to the SITE Intelligence Group, an organization that monitors militant Web sites.
Laity, the NATO spokesman, said that officials are always alert to the threat of suicide bombs, but that the Taliban frequently boast of many more bombers than they actually have as a scare tactic.