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KABUL (Reuters) - Afghan troops backed by Western air power have killed at least 60 militants near the Pakistan border, Afghan security officials said on Wednesday, in one of the single biggest assaults against the Taliban-linked Haqqani network.
U.S. officials say Washington has intensified its drive against the network in an attempt to deal a lasting blow to the militants before foreign combat forces depart at the end of the year.
The National Directorate of Security, Afghanistan's main intelligence agency, said in a statement that about 300 Haqqani insurgents and foreign fighters came under intensive fire on Monday when they tried to storm Afghan bases in Ziruk district of Paktika province.
Interior Ministry spokesman Sediq Sediqqi said Afghan forces were already in position after receiving information about imminent attacks by the insurgents.
"Hundreds of insurgents tried to take over the district centre but we were there and hit them with a huge blow," Sediqqi told Reuters, adding that five Afghan policemen were wounded.
"Dead bodies, wounded fighters, their weapons and pick-up trucks were left on the battlefield," Sediqqi added.
The NATO-led international force declined to comment.
The Haqqani network, which professes obedience to Taliban leader Mullah Mohammad Omar, is believed to have been involved in some of the most deadly attacks of the Afghan war.
The group has been blamed for attacks on hotels popular with foreigners in Kabul, the bombing of the Indian embassy in the capital, a 2011 attack on the U.S. embassy and several big attempted truck bombings.
The United States blacklisted the group as a terrorist organisation in 2012. It also accuses Pakistan's powerful spy agency of supporting the network and using it as a proxy in Afghanistan to gain leverage against growing influence of its arch-rival India. Pakistan denies that.
Monday's battle occurred in the southeast province of Paktika which shares a long and porous border with lawless areas in Pakistan where foreign fighters and the Haqqani network are believed to be based.
The Obama administration has created a special unit based in Kabul to coordinate efforts against the militant group, officials familiar with the matter have told Reuters. It was set up late last year, as part of a new strategy that involves multiple government agencies. [ID:nL1N0LV0KE] The unit, headed by a colonel and known in military parlance as a "fusion cell", brings together special forces, conventional forces, intelligence personnel, and some civilians to improve targeting of Haqqani members and to heighten the focus on the group, the officials said.
The U.S.-led military operation in Afghanistan is due to end on Dec. 31, although the United States wants to keep a small force in the country for counter-terrorism support and training.
Outgoing President Hamid Karzai has declined to sign a security agreement allowing U.S. forces to stay, but the two front runners to replace him as president in an election say they will enact the pact.
Afghan insurgents have pledged to disrupt the election with a campaign of violence, but the first round of the vote passed off relatively peacefully. As the country readies for a second round run-off in June, there is concern the conditions will be more favourable for militant attacks.
Additional reporting by Jeremy Laurence; Editing by Robert Birsel