KABUL, Afghanistan – Fighting between rebels and Afghan and American forces left 17 insurgents dead, while suspected Taliban (search) gunmen killed a senior pro-government Muslim cleric Wednesday, officials said.
The 17 were killed in fighting on Monday and Tuesday in the Daychopan district of Zabul province (search), a U.S. military statement said. Six other insurgents were captured in the clashes, it said.
The statement said a rocket-propelled grenade launcher, 14 rocket-propelled grenades and other weapons were found in a mosque in the area.
"Afghan army and police, operating in concert with coalition forces, are experiencing numerous tactical successes in the northern districts of Zabul province," said U.S. Army Maj. Douglas Vincent, the executive officer of the 503rd Infantry Regiment's 2nd Battalion.
The cleric, Saleh Mohammed, was killed in neighboring Helmand province after leaving his home in Sasain village and walking to his mosque, said provincial government spokesman Mohammed Wali.
The killing was the latest in a string of attacks on religious leaders allied with President Hamid Karzai's (search) U.S.-backed government. Saleh Mohammed was the top cleric in Helmand and a member of the national Ulema Council.
His death came a week after rebels killed a senior cleric and his wife in eastern Paktika province (search). A few days earlier, another pro-government Islamic leader was killed in the southern city of Kandahar. In late May, one of the top national Muslim leaders, Abdul Fayaz, was also killed in the city.
The fighting comes amid an unprecedented spate of bloodshed that has left more than 700 people dead in three months and threatened to sabotage three years of progress toward peace in Afghanistan. U.S. and Afghan officials have warned that the violence is likely to worsen in the lead-up to legislative elections set for September.