ASADABAD, Afghanistan (Reuters) - U.S. forces in Afghanistan suffered their worst losses in more than a year when fighters stormed remote outposts near the Pakistan border, cutting off contact with police, authorities said on Sunday.
NATO said eight Americans and at least two Afghan soldiers died. Afghan provincial authorities said they had lost contact with the Afghan police force in the area after the day-long battle and did not know whether they were dead or alive.
The fighting took place in Nuristan province’s Kamdesh district in high mountains along the eastern border with Pakistan on Saturday and was not reported until Sunday.
U.S. forces had already decided to abandon the area as part of commander General Stanley McChrystal’s strategy to focus his forces on population centers.
Militia from a local mosque and a nearby village launched the attacks on two joint NATO and Afghan outposts with rocket-propelled grenades, machine guns and rifles, the NATO-led International Security Assistance Force said.
The NATO troops in the area, who are American, responded by summoning air strikes from jets and helicopter gunships. They said that at day’s end they still controlled the outposts.
“My heart goes out to the families of those we have lost and to their fellow soldiers who remained to finish the fight,” Colonel Randy George, commander of the U.S. force in the eastern mountain area bordering Pakistan, said in the statement.
“This was a complex attack in a difficult area. Both the U.S. and Afghan soldiers fought bravely together. I am extremely proud of their professionalism and bravery.”
A Taliban spokesman, Zabihullah Mujahid, said the movement was behind the attack. He claimed that dozens of Afghan soldiers and police were killed along with Western troops.
Fighters captured 35 police during the battle and their fate would be decided by the movement’s provincial council, he added.
The province’s deputy police chief Mohammad Farooq said the fate of a 90-strong police force in the Kamdesh district was unknown. Interior Ministry spokesman Zemarai Bashary said contact had still not been made with 13 police officers by nightfall on Sunday, a day after the attack.
NATO said its troops had inflicted heavy casualties on the attackers, but did not say how many they had killed.
Mujahid said seven Taliban were killed as a result of an air attack summoned by foreign troops during the 13 hours of battle. He said the Taliban attack included several suicide bombers, explosions and fighters storming the posts.
Hundreds of militants, including foreign nationals based in Pakistan, were involved in the attack, Farooq said.
The attack was the deadliest for U.S. forces since nine were killed in a July 2008 battle in nearby Kunar province, which the U.S. military is investigating as a debacle that will teach its forces how to understand the demands of combat in Afghanistan.
U.S. forces have suffered some of their worst casualties in the east, where they have tried to control remote mountain passes used by Taliban fighters as infiltration routes from Pakistan.
Separately in the east, one U.S. service member died of wounds suffered from a bomb on Saturday, NATO said.
Nearly 400 Western troops have died this year in Afghanistan, by far the deadliest year of the war launched in response to the September 11, 2001 attacks on the United States. More Western troops have died this year than in the entire period from 2001-2005.
Under McChrystal’s new counter-insurgency strategy troops are supposed to move into more heavily populated areas to protect the population and reduce the influence of insurgents, while abandoning efforts to defend remote locations.
Saturday’s attack would not alter NATO forces’ plans to leave the area where it took place, the alliance said.
The war in Afghanistan has reached its most violent phase, with attacks by fighters spreading from traditional strongholds in the south and east to the once-peaceful west and north.
McChrystal, who now commands more than 100,000 troops, two thirds of them American, has requested tens of thousands more to implement his new strategy, warning that without them, the eight-year-old war will probably be lost.
Additional reporting by Hamid Shalizi, Peter Graff and Sayed Salahuddin in KABUL; Writing by Peter Graff and Sayed Salahuddin; Editing by Sanjeev Miglani and Louise Ireland