KABUL – Taliban militants fired rockets and mortars at a U.S. base in eastern Afghanistan on Saturday, killing two American troops and wounding several more in a two-hour battle, officials said.
During the clash, which ended only after U.S. forces called in airstrikes, a suicide bomber drove an explosives-laden truck toward the base's gates. It blew up when American troops fired on it.
More than 30 insurgents were killed in the battle in Zerok district of Paktika province, said Hamidullah Zawak, the provincial governor spokesman. Seven American and two Afghan troops were wounded, a U.S. military spokesman said.
Attack helicopters, airstrikes and fire from U.S. troops killed at least 10 militants, according to a statement from the NATO-led force under which these American troops fight. Troops detained one militant, it said. The discrepancy in the militant death tolls could not immediately be reconciled.
The multi-pronged attack near the Pakistan border is hundreds of miles (kilometers) from the massive Marine assault in southern Afghanistan and underscores the militants' ability to inflict casualties on the over-stretched U.S. forces as they widen their battle against the Taliban, who have made a violent comeback following their initial defeat in the American-led 2001 invasion.
Responding to the deteriorating security situation, President Barack Obama's administration has ordered 21,000 additional troops to Afghanistan and expects the total number of U.S. forces there to reach 68,000 by year's end. That is double the number of troops in Afghanistan in 2008 but still half as many as are now in Iraq.
As part of the new strategy, 4,000 Marines poured into volatile Helmand province on Thursday in the biggest U.S. military operation in Afghanistan since 2001, trying to cut insurgent supply lines and win over local elders.
Also in the south, a roadside bomb Saturday killed seven policemen in Kandahar province, the Interior Ministry statement said. Another two Afghan soldiers died in a separate blast in Helmand province's Musa Qala district also Saturday, the Defense Ministry said.
In the eastern attack, an insurgent drove a truck filled with explosives and gravel toward the gates of the U.S. base, Zawak said. When the driver did not heed warnings to stop, troops opened fire on the truck, which exploded, he said.
The blast happened in the middle of a rocket and mortar fire attack on the base, which killed two U.S. troops and wounded seven other American soldiers, said Spc. April Campbell, a U.S. military spokeswoman.
The clash lasted for two hours before U.S.-called airstrikes that ended the fight, Zawak said.
Two Afghan soldiers were also wounded. The base housed both U.S. and Afghan soldiers.
Zabiullah Mujaheed, a Taliban spokesman, claimed responsibility for the attack. After the blast, some 100 Taliban fighters fired at the coalition troops for several hours, briefly taking over two of their checkpoints, Mujaheed said.
Campbell denied the Taliban ever took over any checkpoints.
Zawak said 32 insurgents were killed in the airstrikes, and that authorities have already recovered 16 bodies. Mujaheed said five insurgents were killed and three were wounded.
It is impossible to independently verify Zawak's and Mujaheed's claims because the base is in a remote area.
Saturday's attack happened in the same province where an American soldier and three Afghans were believed captured by insurgents Tuesday.
U.S. troops continued looking for the soldier, Navy Chief Petty Officer Brian Naranjo said Friday. The military has not publicly identified him.
No immediate claim of responsibility was made by any insurgent group for the missing soldier or Saturday's attack.
Taliban faction led by Sirajuddin Haqqani operate in the area where the attack took place. The U.S. has accused Haqqani of masterminding beheadings and suicide bombings, including the July 2008 attack on the Indian Embassy in Kabul that killed 60 people.