Afghan Forces Retake District Overrun by Taliban Fighters

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Hundreds of Afghan soldiers and police retook a district outside the capital from the Taliban on Friday, pushing out militants who had seized the area in fierce fighting a day earlier, a senior Afghan official said.

Marajudin Pathan, the governor of Ghazni province, said a hastily organized force of more than 250 officers encountered no resistance when they swept into Giro.

"The district is under our control," Pathan told The Associated Press by telephone. "There was no resistance because the cowardly enemy escaped."

He said police, assisted by Afghan soldiers and troops from the U.S.-led military coalition, were combing villages in search of any fighters still hiding there.

The Taliban takeover of Giro, just 110 miles from Kabul, helped undermine claims by the Afghan government and its foreign backers that President Hamid Karzai has expanded government control of the country.

Militants have repeatedly overrun towns in rural areas, especially in the south and east, despite the presence of NATO and U.S. troops whose numbers have swelled to the current 47,000.

But the Taliban's hold is usually short-lived.

Officials said more than 100 suspected Taliban attacked Giro on Thursday evening, setting fire to buildings and cutting telephone lines.

The district mayor, police chief and three policemen were killed during several hours of fighting, deputy governor Kazim Allayer said. Pathan estimated that about 10 of the militants also died.

NATO and the U.S.-led coalition said they were aware of the incident, but had no details.

NATO-led forces are pushing forward with their biggest-ever offensive in southern Afghanistan to root out militants in the opium-producing heartland of Helmand province.

Taliban fighters have also stepped up their operations in recent weeks after a winter lull, and few areas of the country remain free of political violence.

In the western province of Herat, the coalition service member was killed during a gun battle with insurgents on Friday morning that led troops to call in an airstrike, a coalition statement said, without providing further details.

In Oslo, Norway, NATO's top diplomat said he saw no need to change a policy of transferring prisoners held by the alliance to local authorities despite allegations that detainees had been tortured after being handed over by Canadian troops.

Canada's Globe and Mail newspaper reported Monday that dozens of detainees said they had been choked, starved and given electric shocks by Afghan officials.

"I do not think personally there is any reason to suspend the transfer of detainees on the basis of the allegations that we have seen," Secretary General Jaap de Hoop Scheffer told reporters on the sidelines of a NATO meeting.

He said the Afghan government had agreed to an inquiry into the reports of mistreatment.

Canada signed an agreement with Afghanistan in 2005 that committed Canadian soldiers to hand over captured Taliban prisoners to local authorities. Other NATO nations have signed similar agreements.

The U.S.-led coalition said, meanwhile, that its forces killed five suspected Taliban militants and arrested five others during an operation Friday in southeastern Zabul province.

The killings and arrests came as the coalition, acting on a tip, raided a compound where Taliban involved in weapons smuggling and planning attacks on coalition forces were suspected to be hiding. The coalition said it found weapons in the compound and in adjacent caves.

In other violence, gunmen assassinated a policeman responsible for criminal investigations as he was driving in eastern Khost province Friday, said provincial police chief Gen. Mohammad Ayub.

A relative in the car also was killed, and the driver was wounded, Ayub said, adding that two suspects have been arrested. It was not immediately clear if it was a personal conflict or an insurgency attack.

In southern Uruzgan province, Taliban militants ambushed a police convoy patrolling late Wednesday night, and the ensuing clash left four policemen and six Taliban dead, said provincial police chief Gen. Abdul Qasim Khan.