QALAT, Afghanistan – Suspected Taliban (search) fighters attacked an Afghan government checkpoint Monday and ambushed soldiers along the main road linking the south with the capital, killing at least eight soldiers and taking two prisoner, Afghan officials said.
The attacks came a day after two U.S. soldiers were killed in a 90-minute gunbattle with insurgents in Paktika province, in the east near the border with Pakistan (search). Four suspected Taliban were killed in that fighting.
In Kabul (search), meanwhile, Afghan authorities supported by international peacekeepers arrested several suspected terrorists Monday, a spokeswoman for the International Assistance Force said.
Since Saturday, U.S. troops have been staging "Operation Mountain Viper" in the Dai Chupan district of southern Zabul province, said Col. Rodney Davis, a spokesman for the U.S. military.
He said U.S. special operations forces and 10th Mountain Division ground forces with close-air support have been deployed but did not say how many were involved in fighting.
A local religious leader, Mulvi Abdul Rahman, told The Associated Press that the provincial government in Zabul was trying to negotiate a cease-fire with the Taliban through tribal elders.
"Both sides -- the present government and the Taliban -- are all Afghans. We are all the same people and we have been fighting for 23 years," he said. "Now, I would rather we negotiate rather than fight, so these [Taliban] fighters can go home and help rebuild Afghanistan."
Afghan presidential spokesman Jawid Luddin said more than 500 troops of the fledgling Afghan national army had been deployed in Zabul. So far, most of the fighting on the government side has been done by provincial militia forces.
Backed by U.S.-coalition forces, the government has engaged in a week of bitter fighting against suspected Taliban in the province.
The latest attacks on Afghan soldiers, both near the mountains of Dai Chupan, appeared to be an attempt by the insurgents to distract government forces from the larger battle, said Khalil Hotak, the provincial intelligence chief.
A large group of rebels attacked an Afghan checkpoint late Sunday in Shajoi -- several miles from the main fighting and about 20 miles northeast of Qalat -- killing four soldiers and taking the remaining two captive, Hotak said. He said witnesses told authorities the attackers arrived and escaped on foot.
In the second attack, suspected insurgents approached Afghan soldiers protecting the Kabul-Kandahar road in Shajoi, killing four soldiers and setting their vehicle ablaze, Hotak told The Associated Press from a command center in Qalat.
In the mountains, U.S. warplanes have been pounding Taliban positions, and Afghan and U.S. troops have been pushing across gorges and ravines in an effort to smash Taliban hideouts, killing dozens of suspected insurgents in one of the fiercest battles since the fall of the hardline Islamic regime.
Davis said at least 37 insurgents had been killed in direct combat or air strikes, apparently referring to the casualty count during the past week of fighting. Afghan officials have put the toll much higher.
Four U.S. soldiers have been killed in less than two weeks.
Gen. Haji Saifullah Khan, the main Afghan commander in the area, said by satellite phone that fighting had slowed Monday and there was a lull in U.S. bombing.
"We are advancing and getting closer and closer to some Taliban positions," he said from Larzab, a front-line location.
Khan said Sunday that intelligence from an informer among the insurgents indicated that more than 250 Taliban reinforcement fighters had arrived in the area, in Dai Chupan from a neighboring district.
There was no word of casualties among government forces Monday. It was not possible to independently confirm Hotak's or Khan's reports.
The coalition, which invaded Afghanistan after the Sept. 11 attacks, has 11,500 soldiers hunting down Taliban and Al Qaeda fighters, mainly in the south and east of the country.
In Kabul, several people were arrested Monday on suspicion of "terrorist and criminal activities" against the Afghan people and peacekeeping troops, said Maj. Sarah Wood of the international peacekeeping force. She did not release any other details.
Also Monday, a spokesman for Afghan President Hamid Karzai said the leader had approved long-delayed reforms for the defense ministry and wanted to fill 22 top posts within two weeks.
The reforms, aimed at making the ministry more ethnically balanced, are seen as crucial to paving the way for building a national army and disarming the warlords who control most of the country.