KABUL, Afghanistan – U.S.-led coalition forces killed about 80 Taliban fighters during a six-hour battle outside a Taliban-controlled town in southern Afghanistan on Saturday, the latest in a series of increasingly bloody engagements in the region, officials said.
Also Saturday, homicide bomber wearing an Afghan security uniform detonated his explosives at the entrance to a combined U.S.-Afghan base in the east of the country, killing four Afghan soldiers and a civilian, officials said.
The battle near Musa Qala in Helmand province — the world's largest poppy growing region — is at least the fifth major fight in the area since Sept. 1. The five battles have killed more than 250 Taliban fighters, a possible sign that U.S. or British forces could be trying to wrest the area back from Taliban militants.
The latest fight began when Taliban fighters attacked a combined U.S. coalition and Afghan patrol with rockets and gunfire, prompting the combined force to call in attack aircraft, which resulted in "almost seven dozen Taliban fighters killed," the U.S.-led coalition said in a statement early Sunday.
The coalition said that four bombs were dropped on a trench line filled with Taliban fighters, resulting in most of the deaths.
Taliban militants overran Musa Qala in February, four months after British troops left the town following a contentious peace agreement that handed over security responsibilities to Afghan elders. Musa Qala has been in control of Taliban fighters ever since.
Situated in the north of Helmand, Musa Qala and the region around it have been the front line of the bloodiest fighting this year. It is also the heartland of Afghanistan's illicit opium poppy farms.
Violence in Afghanistan this year has been the deadliest since the 2001 U.S.-led invasion. More than 5,200 people have died this year due to the insurgency, according to an Associated Press count based on figures from Afghan and Western officials
The suicide bomber walked up to a security gate for Afghan soldiers outside Forward Operating Base Bermel in the eastern province of Paktika, near the border with Pakistan, NATO's International Security Assistance Force said.
Four Afghan soldiers and a civilian were killed and six Afghans were wounded, NATO's International Security Assistance Force said. No Americans were hurt.
It was not immediately clear if the bomber had been trying to gain entry to the base.
Taliban insurgents have set off more than 100 suicide blasts this year, a record pace.
Elsewhere, Taliban militants killed three Afghan police who had been trying to prevent them from carrying out a kidnapping, said Helmand provincial police chief Mohammad Hussein Andiwal. The militants successfully kidnapped an Afghan man during the gunbattle, he said.
Australia's prime minister, meanwhile, said more NATO powers must directly engage the Taliban to help ease the burden on Australia, the United States, Britain, Canada and the Netherlands, which all have troops in the dangerous southern and central parts of Afghanistan.
Germany, Italy, France and Spain have troops in the relatively safer northern sections, a fact that is causing a rift within NATO, and Australian Prime Minister John Howard said those countries need to help ease the burden on countries operating in the south.
"Some of the other countries have lots of troops in Afghanistan, but they're not in some of the areas that are experiencing the heaviest fighting," he said.
The governments of the Netherlands and Canada, in particular, are coming under domestic pressure to pull out troops because of heavy casualties.
"I think the Dutch government has been very courageous to date," Howard said. "It's not for me to comment on Dutch politics, but I do observe that the Dutch are making a great contribution and as are of course the Canadians."