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Afghanistan: Officials Say Operation Cleared Villages Of Taliban ) --> An Afghan soldier searches passengers at a checkpoint in Arghandab district (AFP) Afghan officials say that hundreds of Taliban have been killed and wounded in a military operation to clear insurgents from a valley northwest of Kandahar city.

The joint operation by the Afghan National Army and NATO, launched on June 18, targeted some 650 Taliban fighters who had infiltrated the Arghandab district, an area of farms and orchards that offered good cover.

The Taliban are believed to have massed there following a successful insurgent attack on the main Kandahar prison on June 13, in which 900 inmates, including some 400 Taliban fighters, were freed.

The governor of Kandahar Province, Assadullah Khalid, told reporters that the NATO and Afghan troops "managed to drive out the enemy and clear all the villages in Arghandab district." "The Taliban received hundreds of casualties, killed and wounded. They also left behind many heavy and light weapons in the area," Khalid added.

But NATO officers have been more cautious in their assessment so far of the joint operation to drive the Taliban militants out of the district. Western news agencies quoted NATO officers as saying that they cannot yet confirm that Arghanabad district is free of militants.

AP quoted NATO spokesman Mark Laity as saying the coalition launched a “limited number of successful air strikes” overnight. “We don’t have a definitive assessment, though casualties were inflicted,” he siad.

Some 800 Afghan government troops, backed by hundreds of mainly Canadian soldiers, are involved in the operation. The battle has been one of the biggest in Afghanistan in recent years.

The scale of the fighting, like the prison break, is another indication of the Taliban's comeback in southern Afghanistan in recent years. They are particularly strong in areas near the Afghan-Pakistani border, and have established bases and secured support across the border in Pakistan’s tribal areas.

Villagers who have fled the fighting in Arghandab district say that many of the Taliban involved are wearing the type of clothing and “pakol” hats favored by Pashtuns living in Pakistan’s tribal regions. By contrast, local Taliban favor turbans.

The fighting comes as tensions between Afghanistan and Pakistan are running particularly high in response to the cross-border Taliban operations.

Afghan President Hamid Karzai has warned Taliban leaders in Pakistan that Afghan forces could respond by pursuing Taliban leaders into Pakistan. Islamabad has warned Kabul not to violate Pakistan’s sovereignty.

RFE/RL Afghanistan Report

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