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NATO strikes kill Taliban in Afghanistan's Tora Bora

KABUL (Reuters) - Afghan and foreign forces killed at least five Taliban insurgents in assaults in Afghanistan’s Tora Bora mountains, the former hideout of al Qaeda leader Osama bin Laden, Afghan police and NATO officials said on Wednesday.

Insurgents had recently begun gathering in the remote Tora Bora area in the eastern province of Nangarhar, on the border with Pakistan, to prepare attacks on Afghan and NATO troops, said provincial police chief Ali Shah Paktiawal.

Afghan security forces and troops from the NATO-led International Security Assistance Force (ISAF) were conducting operations throughout the area to root out the insurgents, he said.

Taliban and other insurgents, such as the al Qaeda-linked Haqqani network, have long been able to slip across the border from Afghanistan into sanctuaries in the largely lawless ethnic Pashtun tribal belt of northwest Pakistan.

Paktiawal said the attack killed at least five, and possibly seven, insurgents and took place in the Pachir wa Agam district of Nangarhar province overnight.

ISAF said in a statement that an air strike had killed five insurgents in Pachir wa Agam, through which the Tora Bora mountains stretch. The strike was ordered against a “senior leader” believed to be responsible for planning and conducting attacks against Afghan and foreign troops.

“Recent reporting indicates the group was coordinating the use of suicide bombers within the district and may have been planning an attack at an Afghan border checkpoint,” ISAF said in the statement.

Weapons including automatic rifles and rocket-propelled grenades were found after the strike but ISAF was still trying to determine whether the leader who had been targeted was among those killed, the force said.

Violence is at its worst across Afghanistan since the Taliban were ousted by U.S.-backed Afghan forces in the wake of the September 11, 2001, al Qaeda attacks on the United States.

U.S. forces and Afghan militias launched a large-scale assault on the Tora Bora mountains in late 2001 in pursuit of bin Laden and other al Qaeda leaders, who had been sheltered by the Taliban and were believed to be in hiding in the area after the strict Islamist regime was toppled.

In November 2009, the U.S. Senate Foreign Relations Committee said in a report the U.S. military could have captured or killed bin Laden if it had launched a concerted attack on his Tora Bora hideout.

U.S. military leaders allowed Afghan militiamen to spearhead the assault and bin Laden managed to escape. The committee described bin Laden’s escape as a lost opportunity that altered the course of the war and paved the way for insurgencies in Afghanistan and Pakistan.

Military and civilian casualties hit record levels in 2010, by far the bloodiest year since the war began in 2001, with the insurgency spreading out of Taliban strongholds in the south and east into once peaceful areas in the north and west.

Reporting by Hamid Shalizi in KABUL and Rafiq Sherzad in JALALABAD; Editing by Paul Tait