updated 7/9/2006 2:27:10 PM ET 2006-07-09T18:27:10

Hundreds of Canadian and Afghan soldiers raided Taliban strongholds throughout southern orchards Sunday, sparking fighting that killed at least 15 militants and one Canadian.

Two Canadian soldiers were wounded in Kandahar province’s Zharew district, the scene of some of the fiercest fighting in an ongoing anti-Taliban offensive being waged across southern Afghanistan.

Canadian Cpl. Anthony Boneca was killed in the Pasmhol village in Zharew during a “combined coalition-Afghan operation” against the Taliban, said military spokesman Maj. Marc Theriault.

Several hours later, “intense close quarters” fighting broke out nearby, leaving at least five Taliban militants dead and two Canadian soldiers slightly wounded, said another coalition official, Lt. Cdr. Mark MacIntyre.

A coalition airstrike killed another 10 militants in the neighboring Panjwayi district, where Canadian troops launched a campaign against Taliban strongholds Saturday, according to a military statement. Two Canadians also were wounded.

“The fighting we have seen over the last 48 hours has been pretty intense and there has been a number of fire fights,” MacIntyre said.

Most of the fighting is taking place in fields and orchards where small bands of Taliban fighters have taken cover, MacIntyre said.

At least 18 Canadian soldiers have been killed in Afghanistan since 2002. Four were killed in an April roadside bomb blast in the deadliest attack against the 2,300-strong Canadian contingent since deployment to Kandahar in February.

U.K. set to deploy more forces
In a sign of the deadly Taliban threat in the south, the British government is preparing to deploy hundreds of extra soldiers and more equipment to the volatile Helmand province where more than 3,000 British troops are moving into.

Britain’s defense secretary, Des Browne, is expected to announce the deployments to Britain’s House of Commons on Monday after military commanders urgently requested reinforcements, a British defense official said on condition of anonymity as he was unauthorized to speak to the media.

Six British troops have been killed in Helmand in a month and Browne acknowledged on Saturday that a British deployment into the south had “energized opposition” from a resurgent Taliban.

Britain has around 5,000 troops in Afghanistan, with 3,000 of those in Helmand — where soldiers will head a NATO-led peacekeeping mission at the end of July.

During recent months, Afghanistan has been gripped by the bloodiest spate of violence since a U.S.-led invasion ousted the Taliban regime after the Sept. 11, 2001 attacks.

Broad bid to loosen Taliban control
Some 10,000 U.S., Canadian, British and Afghan forces have deployed across southern Afghanistan as part of Operation Mountain Thrust in a bid to loosen the Taliban’s hold on the region. At least 20 coalition troops have been killed in combat across Afghanistan since the offensive started in May, according to an Associated Press tally based on coalition figures. Most of the fatalities have been in the south.

Separately, Spain’s defense minister announced Sunday that an explosion the previous day in western Afghanistan that killed a Peruvian solder and slightly wounded four Spanish troops was probably caused by a remote-controlled 8.8 pound anti-vehicle land mine.

In eastern Laghman province, Afghan soldiers killed a militant Saturday after their patrol was ambushed, a Defense Ministry statement said. One Afghan soldier was wounded.

Afghan soldiers also arrested four suspected Taliban members, including a local leader identified as Mullah Nazar, in southern Uruzgan province, the statement said. The troops also confiscated a quantity of explosives and Iranian and Pakistani checks valued at $300,000.

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