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Afghanistan: Battle Rages Against Suspected Taliban Fighters

A weeklong battle in southern Afghanistan between suspected Taliban fighters and U.S.-led coalition forces has been escalating, with reports suggesting that hundreds of Taliban fighters have reinforced positions in the remote mountains of Zabul Province. U.S. war planes have been bombing those areas in what is being described as one of the fiercest battles since the Taliban was driven from Kabul in late 2001.

Prague, 1 September 2003 (RFE/RL) -- U.S.-led coalition forces in Afghanistan today announced a major military operation in the southern province of Zabul, where a battle against suspected Taliban fighters has been raging for more than a week.

A spokesman for the coalition forces, U.S. Army Colonel Rodney Davis, says Operation Mountain Viper began on 30 August with airstrikes against suspected Taliban and Al-Qaeda hideouts in the remote Dai Chopan District. The operation also includes U.S. artillery and attack helicopter support for coalition ground forces.

Reports say hundreds of Taliban fighters have been regrouping in the mountainous area in recent days to launch coordinated attacks against coalition forces.

Last week, the Taliban went on the offensive in the province's Atghar District. U.S. officials say as many as 85 Taliban fighters have been killed since the battle began. Reports say at least 13 Afghan soldiers and two U.S. soldiers also have been killed in southern Afghanistan during the past week.

Zabul's provincial security chief, Khalilullah Hotaki, told RFE/RL today that four government soldiers were killed and two were captured overnight when Taliban fighters ambushed a government checkpoint near Shajoi. The ambush was several kilometers from the main fighting and about 30 kilometers northeast of Zabul's capital, Qalat.

Hotaki says Taliban fighters also killed four Afghan soldiers by firing a rocket-propelled grenade at their car on the main road linking Kabul and Kandahar:

"Last night at 12:30, the enemy launched a bloody attack on a checkpoint controlled by Afghan government troops. In this attack, three Afghan soldiers at the checkpoint were killed and two soldiers were captured by the Taliban and taken away as their prisoners. Also, they stole a car from the checkpoint. In addition to this, they also ambushed a vehicle carrying soldiers who were responsible for maintaining security along a road nearby. They attacked the car with rockets. The car was hit and it burned, and four Afghan soldiers who were inside were killed. Before more security troops could arrive as reinforcements from the district of Shajoi to reinforce the government troops, the attackers retreated. The Surkhakan Mountains are very close by and probably they have gone to their hiding places there in the mountains."

Coalition spokesman Davis says two U.S. soldiers who were killed in the fighting died yesterday from injuries sustained during a 90-minute battle in the neighboring province of Paktika.

"[U.S. soldiers] were involved in a combat mission [and] came under attack," Davis said. "Three soldiers were wounded. All three were U.S., belonging to the Warrior Brigade of the 10th Mountain [Division]. Two of them eventually died of their wounds."

Four suspected Taliban fighters were reportedly killed in that clash.

Zabul security chief Hotaki told RFE/RL he has no doubt that coalition forces have been engaging Taliban fighters in Operation Mountain Viper.

"[The Taliban] have arranged different groups not only in Dai Chopal but in different areas of Zabul Province," he said. "And they have called upon different people to handle different responsibilities for those groups. These people absolutely belong to [the Taliban]. They are not from any other group."

Jawed Ludin, a spokesman for Afghan Transitional Administration Chairman Hamid Karzai, told RFE/RL today that U.S. and Afghan forces have gained the upper hand against regrouped Taliban forces.

"I can say that in Zabul, the government [and the U.S.-led coalition] had an operation against the terrorists," he said. "It was a very serious operation. The results were very positive. The terrorists were routed from their base, and they are fleeing. And they are under attack."

Meanwhile, Ludin is denying reports from Islamabad claiming that Kabul has started negotiations with the Taliban in a bid to end the fighting.

"The reports [that central government officials are in negotiations with the Taliban in Zabul Province] are just confusing the minds of the people," he said. "They are not true. The Afghan government is the government of all the Afghan people, and Afghanistan is the home of all Afghans. But terrorists don't have a place in any part of Afghanistan. When they raise their heads, there will not be negotiations. There will be a struggle."

The report initially appeared in the Islamabad-based Afghan Islamic Press. It said talks in four remote districts of Zabul Province were being led by Abdul Rehman Hotak. The report identified Hotak as an official from the central government but said he initiated contacts with the Taliban on the authority of Zabul Governor Hafizullah Hashim.

But officials in Kabul say Hotak is not part of the UN-mandated central government. Rather, they say he is a member of a nongovernmental organization calling itself the Independent Human Rights Commission.

Nevertheless, Hotaki -- Zabul's provincial security chief -- confirms that provincial officials have been relaying messages to Taliban fighters through local tribal leaders in the mountains.

Hotaki said he is asking the Taliban fighters to drop their call for a jihad against U.S.-led coalition forces.