Attack on Taliban Targets Kills at Least 14

Afghan militia and U.S. forces began a cleanup operation Tuesday after the bombing of a suspected Taliban (search) mountain hideout that killed at least 14 insurgents, an Afghan official said.

Between 100-150 Afghan forces backed by U.S. troops were sweeping through southeastern Afghanistan's rugged terrain, where a bombardment by U.S. jets destroyed a suspected Taliban hideout Monday, said Khalil Hotak, chief of the Zabul (search) province intelligence service.

It was the deadliest air assault since rebels launched a series of strikes against Afghan government targets in recent weeks.

The attacks against police and government officials have cast a shadow over American-led efforts to rebuild the war-battered country. They are also indications of an increasingly well organized Taliban.

Hotak said that the Taliban were operating with Al Qaeda (search) and loyalists of renegade rebel commander Gulbuddin Hekmatyar.

He didn't offer evidence of his claim, but said there were "intelligence" reports of Pakistanis and Middle Eastern fighters among the Taliban who escaped.

Monday's attack was carried out jointly by Afghan provincial militia forces and U.S. Army Special Forces soldiers, as well as A-10 ground attack jets, F-16 fighter bombers and AV-8B Harrier attack jets, said U.S. Army Lt. Col. Jim Cassella, a Pentagon spokesman.

Col. Rodney Davis, spokesman for the U.S. military at coalition headquarters at Bagram Air Base (search), north of Kabul, said late Monday that 14 "enemy" fighters were killed.

There were no reported casualties among U.S.-led coalition troops, Davis said.

A spokesman for the Taliban, Mohammed Hanif, in a satellite telephone interview with The Associated Press said the dead in Monday's operation were civilians. He said the Taliban were attacked on two fronts by government troops but escaped. His version could not be verified.

Operations carried out in Afghanistan's rugged mountain regions are difficult to independently verify and differing accounts of casualties among suspected insurgents are difficult to reconcile.

In the operation on Monday some government officials, including a spokesman for the governor of Zabul province, put the death toll among suspected Taliban at 50.

However, the U.S. military scaled back that estimate to 14.

Yet it still isn't clear whether bodies of the dead were recovered.

The United States continues to conduct periodic airstrikes in Afghanistan. About a week ago, Harriers and A-10s were sent on a bombing run along the border with Pakistan.

The recent anti-government assaults suggest that the Taliban are regrouping after the harsh Islamic regime was toppled by U.S.-led forces in late 2001.

There have been reports that the Taliban's leader, Mullah Mohammed Omar, has appointed military commanders to areas of control.

Afghan presidential spokesman Jawad Luddin said Monday the guerrilla attacks were an attempt to undermine the government of Afghan President Hamid Karzai in "soft areas" vulnerable to infiltration.

The Afghan administration has complained to Pakistan -- a U.S. ally in the war on terror -- that Taliban leaders appear to have found refuge in its lawless tribal regions. Pakistan has deployed its troops there but the border regions are long and porous and lined with rugged mountains in which to hide.