KANDAHAR, Afghanistan (Reuters) - Afghan and NATO-led forces killed or wounded hundreds of Taliban on Thursday in an offensive to clear the militants from the outskirts of Kandahar city, the provincial governor said.
NATO confirmed in a statement issued in Kabul that Taliban fighters, including many believed to have escaped during a mass jail break last week, had been routed from positions among the orchards and farms of Arghandab district, northwest of Kandahar.
On Thursday, Afghan and mostly Canadian forces of NATO’s International Security Assistance Force attacked enemy positions, having used helicopter gunships at the start of one of the biggest battles in Afghanistan in recent years.
Earlier NATO had said the offensive, which began on Wednesday, was expected to last until the weekend, and it estimated some 600 Taliban fighters had slipped into the Arghandab valley.
Kandahar provincial governor Assadullah Khalid told a news conference that the Taliban had been driven out, and troops were searching villagers’ houses for fighters left behind.
“The Taliban have been cleared totally from Arghandab district,” Khalid said.
“They have suffered hundreds of dead and wounded and many of their casualties are Pakistanis,” he said.
A Defence Ministry spokesman also said Arghandab district had been retaken, and 56 insurgents killed. Azimi said two Afghan army officers had been killed and two wounded.
NATO said the district was retaken in a statement.
“Afghan and ISAF forces have cleared the Arghandab district and have created a safe and stable environment in the region,” it said.
“When Afghan and ISAF units move into the area, they encountered only minor incidents with insurgents and never met or spotted the large numbers of insurgents as claimed.”
The Taliban could not be reached immediately for comment.
About 800 Afghan government troops, backed by hundreds of NATO soldiers, are fighting the Taliban insurgents who seized seven villages in the district on Monday.
A Taliban spokesman said the group’s objective was to retake Kandahar, the birthplace of the Islamist movement which seized power in 1996 and was ousted by U.S.-led forces in 2001.
Analysts said the raid on the jail and the infiltration into Arghandab showed the Taliban’s confidence was growing at a time when NATO casualties were mounting and questions were being raised among NATO member states about the Afghan mission.
Security has deteriorated despite the presence of about 60,000 foreign troops and about 150,000 government troops.
Major-General Marc Lessard, the commander of NATO forces in south Afghanistan, said the infiltration of Taliban into Arghandab and the jailbreak were setbacks for NATO.
“They’ve definitely managed to achieve some kind of tactical success, there’s no doubt there,” Lessard told Reuters in an interview on Wednesday.
Typically, the Taliban have been unable to hold on to captured villages, and melt away to step up suicide bomb attacks and ambushes on NATO and Afghan forces.
In January, the militants attacked a luxury hotel popular with Westerners in Kabul and in April they tried to assassinate President Hamid Karzai as he was watching a military parade.
The Afghan government says some members of its own security forces had helped the Taliban mount both the attack on the Kandahar jail and the attempt on Karzai’s life.
Writing by Sayed Salahuddin; Editing by Simon Cameron-Moore and Sanjeev Miglani