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U.S. conducts air strikes as fighting rages in Afghan province

KABUL (Reuters) - U.S aircraft carried out a dozen strikes in Helmand province in southern Afghanistan on Wednesday as fierce battles continued with Taliban insurgents around the town of Marjah near the provincial capital, a U.S. army spokesman said.

The strikes came a day after one U.S. service member was killed and two other Americans and a number of Afghan special forces soldiers were wounded during operations in the province, which has seen months of heavy fighting.

U.S. army spokesman Col. Michael Lawhorn said U.S. special forces were still in place on Wednesday, supporting Afghan army units in Marjah and Sangin district, further to the north, and air support had also been provided.

“U.S. forces have conducted 12 air strikes in support of operations in and around Marjah,” he said.

The strikes highlight the intensity of the combat in Helmand, a traditional Taliban stronghold where hundreds of British and American soldiers and marines were killed or wounded fighting the insurgency.

Provincial police chief Abdul Rahman Sarjang said 120 Taliban insurgents had been killed since Monday, when security forces began an operation to clear Marjah. There was no independent confirmation of the figure.

“We have had a lot of achievements from this operation and we will continue until we free Marjah from Taliban,” he said.

The U.S. and Britain have sent additional special forces personnel to the province to help train and assist Afghan police and army units. But officials said their main role is not to be involved in fighting.

Over the past six months, the Taliban has overrun much of the province, one of the world’s major centres of opium production, in a broad offensive that has put Afghan government forces under severe strain.

Although international troops ended combat operations last year, the United States has continued to conduct some air strikes in support of Afghan troops, while special forces units have also been drawn into fighting on occasion, officials have said.

The fact that U.S. troops are back in Helmand and engaged in fighting, even after the end of the main combat mission, has raised questions about the effectiveness of Afghan forces, which have struggled to contain the insurgency.

In Marjah, the road from the provincial capital Lashkar Gah has been repeatedly cut and blocked by landmines, complicating efforts to relieve government forces that have been restricted to a small area around the administrative centre.

Heavy fighting went on all night on Tuesday and the Taliban said fighters had shot down a helicopter in Marjah. The claim was denied by the U.S. military which said a helicopter had suffered mechanical damage.

Reporting by Mohammad Stanekzai in Lashkar Gah and James Mackenzie in Kabul; Editing by Hugh Lawson