KABUL (Reuters) - U.S. and Afghan forces have killed 60 militants, almost half in air strikes, and seized one of the country’s largest ever drug caches over a four-day operation in southern Helmand province, the U.S. military said on Saturday.
The military had said earlier in the operation that 34 militants had been killed.
The troops were fighting for control of Loy Cherah Bazaar in Helmand’s Marjeh city, where they found 75 tonnes of poppy seeds, more than 17 tonnes of morphine, opium and heroin, and caches of weapons and equipment, the military said in a statement.
Afghanistan produces more than 90 percent of the world’s opium, most of it in the Taliban’s southern heartland. U.S. military officials have estimated the opium trade provides between $80 million and $400 million a year to the Taliban.
Curbing the trade is one of the goals of foreign forces in Afghanistan, who also help with operations to dig up poppy fields to prevent the cultivation of the drug crop.
At least 29 of the militants died in air strikes on buildings used for drug making and strategic planning, which included attacks on foreign troops, the U.S. military said.
Weapons and military equipment found included pressure plates used to make roadside bombs, ammunition vests which can be modified into suicide vests, 27 tonnes of ammonium nitrate, and military-grade explosives.
Civilians were escorted from the bazaar during the operation, and an unmanned aircraft is now “observing the scene to detect any attempts by militants and criminals to change the conditions to falsely claim civilian casualties,” the statement said.
Civilian deaths from U.S. and NATO air strikes are a major source of anger among Afghans toward the nearly 80,000 foreign troops in the country fighting Taliban militants.
The Taliban insurgency has been gaining strength in recent months, particularly across the south and east of the country, and violence is now at its highest level since U.S. and Afghan forces ousted the Taliban from power more than seven years ago.
U.S. commanders have rushed thousands of reinforcements to Afghanistan in what Washington considers a make-or-break year for a war it now views as its main security priority.
In a separate incident in Helmand, a British soldier was shot dead while on foot patrol, the British Ministry of Defense said in a statement on Saturday.
Editing by Paul Tait