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Taliban Kills Eight Police, Surround East Afghan Office

U.S. soldiers patrol the site of a roadside bomb blast in Konduz.

U.S. soldiers patrol the site of a roadside bomb blast in Konduz.

JALALABAD, Afghanistan (Reuters) -- A district in Afghanistan's restive east was in danger of falling into Taliban hands after pitched gun battles with insurgents killed at least eight police, a senior official has said.

The fighting erupted late on July 7 in Afghanistan's eastern province of Nuristan bordering Pakistan, where authorities are also battling a growing Taliban insurgency.

Violence has flared across Afghanistan after U.S. Marines launched a major new offensive in the southern Taliban stronghold of Helmand last week.

The police were killed when insurgents attacked government buildings in Nuristan's Barg Matal district late on July 7.

Another eight police were kidnapped during gun battles lasting several hours, Nuristan Governor Jamaluddin Badr said.

"The district headquarters is with the government, but if we do not get reinforcements it will fall to the Taliban," Badr told a Reuters reporter in eastern Afghanistan by telephone.

Officials said 21 Taliban fighters were killed in the battle.

The Taliban said on a website that its fighters had surrounded the building. It said only four of their fighters had been killed.

The Defense Ministry in Kabul said an additional 130 soldiers and police would be sent to Barg Matal to counter the Taliban attack. Fighting had subsided, officials said late on July 8.

The U.S. Marines launched the Helmand offensive, Operation Strike of the Sword, with violence at its worst levels since the Taliban were ousted in 2001 for refusing to hand over Al-Qaeda leaders behind the September 11 attacks on the United States.

Helmand is the source of most of Afghanistan's opium crop, the world's largest, which finances the insurgency.

The Marines are the biggest wave of 17,000 new combat and support troops U.S. President Barack Obama has ordered into Afghanistan by year-end as part of his new regional strategy to defeat the Taliban and stabilize Afghanistan.

On July 8, Marines commander Brigadier General Larry Nicholson and senior Afghan officials attended a flag-raising in Khan Neshin, long under Taliban control.

"This is the Iwo Jima moment," Nicholson told Reuters in Khan Neshin, referring to the famous World War II battle U.S. Marines fought against Japan.

Insurgency Spreads

The Taliban has grown in strength in recent months, with its insurgency spreading out of traditional strongholds in the south and east to the relatively more peaceful north and even to Kabul's outskirts.

Afghan civilians and soldiers as well as foreign troops have died in attacks across the country in the past five days.

More than 17 foreign soldiers, most from the United States and Britain, have been killed in the past five days, making it one of the bloodiest weeks for foreign troops for many months.

Afghan Defense Ministry spokesman Zahir Azimi said on July 8 that Afghan and foreign troops had killed 27 Taliban fighters since the Helmand operation began last week, but there had been no major battles so far.

In northern Konduz Province, Taliban insurgents torched 12 trucks belonging to a construction firm overnight and abducted two of their drivers, the provincial governor said.

On July 6, four U.S. soldiers were killed in a roadside bombing in Konduz.

The Ministry of Defense in London said a British soldier was killed by a roadside bomb near Gereshk, Helmand's main industrial city, on July 7. At least six British soldiers have been killed in the past week.

Another U.S. service member was killed in western Farah Province on July 8, the U.S. military said, and one more foreign soldier was killed in the south on July 7.

One of the main goals of the new operation is to capture ground from the Taliban and then hold it, something overstretched British-led NATO troops have so far been unable to achieve. It is also seeking to win over Afghans from the insurgency.

In eastern Ghazni Province, an Afghan woman was killed by a ricocheting bullet as NATO-led and U.S. forces searched three compounds for members of the Al-Qaeda-linked Haqqani network.

With civilian casualties a major source of friction between Washington and Kabul, and a major obstacle to winning the support of local Afghans, commanders this week launched new combat orders for foreign forces to try to reduce such casualties.

Suicide attacks and roadside bomb blasts are the most common weapons the Taliban use in their campaign to drive out almost 90,000 U.S. and NATO-led troops in Afghanistan and destabilize President Hamid Karzai's Western-backed government.

Washington is pouring in extra troops in part to ensure security for August 20 presidential elections, the second in Afghanistan's short history as a democracy.