SANGSAR, Afghanistan (Reuters) - Canadian troops drove Taliban insurgents into an Afghan army ambush on Saturday and then called in air strikes to hit the fleeing militants, killing at least 15, the Canadian army commander said.
The Canadian troops moved in under cover of darkness through grape, poppy and marijuana fields to a suspected Taliban compound in the village of Sangsar, near Kandahar, where fugitive Taliban leader Mullah Omar once lived and preached at the local mosque.
“It was another disruptive operation to limit Taliban influence on an Afghan army checkpoint on Highway One,” said Major Dave Quick, in charge of the operation, referring to the main road that loops around southern Afghanistan.
The Canadian troops opened fire at first light, with Afghan army units waiting in ambush for the group of around 60 Taliban insurgents along their predicted line of retreat.
“We had multiple contacts and there was air support that dropped about eight 500-lb bombs on Taliban positions,” he said.
“We estimate that we got about 15 to 20 of them.”
Troops captured an anti-tank weapon capable of piercing their armored vehicles. They also found assault rifles, grenades and armor-piercing shells in and around the compound.
A Taliban spokesman said 27 Afghan and NATO soldiers were killed in fighting in the same district, but a Reuters correspondent with Canadian troops on the operation said there were no casualties among the soldiers.
The spokesman said local Taliban commander Mullah Razaq was also killed in the fighting in southern Afghanistan.
NATO and U.S.-led forces are engaged in a cat-and-mouse hunt for Taliban insurgents who attack and occupy villages before slipping away into the mountains.
The struggle is particularly acute in the Pashtun heartlands of the south and east from where the Taliban purist Islamist movement emerged in the early 1990s to sweep away the mujahideen factions that defeated the Soviets, then fought each other.
As during the 1978-1988 Soviet occupation, guerrilla insurgents still suffer heavy casualties each time they engage the more heavily armed foreign forces.
But Taliban insurgents have copied or learned tactics from Iraq and increasingly use suicide bombers to strike fear into troops and civilians alike and show that the government is incapable of providing security to its citizens.
The practice of beheading enemies has also emerged.
“In the last 10 days the Taliban beheaded seven Afghan civilians without any proof,” said a senior Afghan intelligence official who declined to be named.
He said the killings had taken place across the country, but mostly around Kandahar, Ghazni and other areas of the south.
“The Taliban are putting pressure on civilians to gain support,” he told Reuters. “When these people are caught they are tortured first and then beheaded.”
He said Taliban insurgents became suspicious of everyone whenever U.S. or NATO-led forces launched air strikes, believing they must have been guided from someone on the ground.
Another Taliban spokesman said those executed had been captured with proof, such as laser equipment used for guiding air strikes, that showed they were working for foreign troops.
“We have captured many spies providing information about the Taliban to foreign troops. When we catch any spy, we behead him,” Taliban spokesman Zabiullah Mujahid told Reuters by satellite telephone from an undisclosed location.
Some 6,000 people have been killed in Afghanistan, around 1,500 of them civilians, in the last 18 months, the worst period of violence since U.S.-led forces overthrew the Taliban in 2001.
Additional reporting by Saeed Achakzai in Spin Boldak