ARGHANDAB, Afghanistan (Reuters) - Helicopter gunships and troops blasted a valley in southern Afghanistan on Wednesday in a huge offensive by NATO and local forces against Taliban insurgents, many of whom broke out of jail last week.
The defense ministry in Kabul said dozens of Taliban including foreign militants, were killed in a NATO air strike and two Afghan army officers also died in the operation, in Arghandab district outside Kandahar city.
The ministry said three Taliban group leaders were killed further south, adding 12 other insurgents died in another encounter with the army in neighboring Zabul.
Some 600 Taliban fighters on Monday took over villages in Arghandab, days after freeing hundreds of inmates in an attack on Kandahar city’s main jail, according to the Taliban and an Afghan official.
Taliban spokesman Qari Mohammad Yousuf said militants had set their sights on Kandahar itself, the movement’s birthplace, which lies about 20 km (12 miles) from Arghandab.
After massing troops, Afghan army and NATO-led forces have now started an offensive to flush out the Taliban from the villages, while stepping up security in Kandahar city and imposing a night curfew.
NATO said it expects the operation to last for the next three days, adding the number of insurgents in the district had been “greatly exaggerated”.
The developments in Kandahar come amid rising violence in the past two years, the bloodiest period since the Taliban’s removal from power in 2001 in Afghanistan.
On Wednesday, four Afghan police were killed when a remote controlled bomb hit their vehicle in the southeastern province of Khost, a provincial official said. In neighboring Paktika, two soldiers from the NATO-led force were killed and 10 wounded by a separate blast, the alliance said.
Later, an abortive suicide attack aimed at a NATO convoy in the western province of Farah, killed three Afghan civilians and wounded ten others.
On Tuesday, four British soldiers from the NATO-led force were killed after a roadside bomb struck their vehicle in Helmand, bordering Kandahar, the bloodiest single incident in one day against the British soldiers in Afghanistan.
One of the soldiers is believed to be a woman.
Also on Tuesday, a U.S. military helicopter made a hard landing in the eastern province of Nuristan, causing injuries to soldiers on board, the military said in a statement.
The terrain and remote location have prevented the recovery of the aircraft and U.S.-led forces will conduct a controlled destruction of the damaged aircraft, it said.
Thousands of families have fled Arghandab since Monday, when NATO warned that an operation would be staged to flush out the Taliban from the district.
Mohammad Faiz who had managed to evacuate his family a day earlier, was hoping on Wednesday to return for his belongings from the lush valley of Arghandab, known for its pomegranates as well as hashish production.
“I have come to see if I can take away our house items,” he told reporters at the head of Arghandab valley, as vehicles carrying foreign and Afghan forces drove along the dusty narrow road at high speed. Afghan forces barred journalists from staying long in the area.
Several NATO helicopter gunships were seen firing at targets in the distance, while the sound of artillery and small arms fire echoed.
Earlier, the Taliban in a statement said the militants had “pushed back” the offensive and had blown up a tank.
The Afghan defense ministry says that at least eight villages had been taken by the Taliban who, according to some escapees, had planted land mines to deter attempts to expel them.
The capture of the villages is part of the militants’ latest show of power in Afghanistan.
The austere Islamist Taliban movement emerged from religious schools on the Pakistani border in Kandahar province in the early 1990s.
The militants, who suffered heavy casualties in conventional past battles, have switched recently to operating in small groups, according to analysts.
The latest flare-up comes despite the presence in Afghanistan of more than 60,000 foreign troops under the command of the U.S. military and NATO, as well as about 150,000 Afghan soldiers.
Writing by Sayed Salahuddin; Editing by David Fox/Keith Weir