updated 7/17/2006 10:55:47 PM ET 2006-07-18T02:55:47

Taliban militants seized two towns in tumultuous southern Afghanistan, forcing police and government officials to flee, officials said Monday.

The Taliban operate freely in large areas of southern Afghanistan and police presence there often is virtually nonexistent, but insurgents only were known to have completely seized one town since their hard-line regime was toppled by U.S. forces in 2001.

They were quickly driven out of that town, Chora, in Uruzgan province.

The attacks came with thousands of U.S.-led troops involved in an offensive against Taliban holdouts and allied extremists in four remote southern and eastern provinces to curb the deadliest upsurge in violence since the hard-line militia was ousted in late 2001.

More than 10,000 coalition troops are taking part in Operation Mountain Thrust, but they are working in an area the size of Georgia, leaving militants many areas they can freely operate in. Small villages dot the region, and few have established governments.

On Monday, large numbers of militants chased out police after a brief clash in the town of Naway-i-Barakzayi, in Helmand province near the Pakistan border, district police chief Mullah Sharufuddin said.

Scores of Taliban forces overran police holed up Sunday in a compound in the nearby Helmand town of Garmser. The security forces and a handful of government officials fled, a local government official said.

The official, speaking on condition of anonymity because he did not have permission to speak to the media, said Taliban forces were now “moving freely” around the Garmser and the surrounding district.

‘A credible threat’
“We have heard reports of two districts in southern Helmand being under control of the Taliban, and we are in contact with lots of people to build an accurate picture,” said another coalition spokesman, Maj. Scott Lundy.

“The Taliban are a credible threat, but the coalition is more than a match for them when and wherever we encounter them,” he said.

British military spokesman Capt. Drew Gibson confirmed enemy “activity” in both areas but declined to elaborate. More than 3,000 British soldiers are deploying to Helmand to take over security control from U.S. forces later this month.

Taliban forces killed a coalition soldier and wounded 11 others in a fierce battle Monday in Tirin Kot, capital of Helmand’s neighboring Uruzgan province, a U.S. statement said. The nationalities of the soldiers were not released.

More than 800 people, mostly militants, have been killed since May, according to an Associated Press tally of coalition and Afghan figures.

U.S.-led troops entering southern insurgent hotbeds for the first time are facing intense resistance.

In other violence:

  • A suicide bomber killed the top two Justice Ministry officials and another employee inside the ministry’s office building in the capital of Helmand province, police said.
  • Three Afghan soldiers were killed and three wounded when a roadside bomb destroyed their vehicle in the same province.
  • In eastern Afghanistan, U.S.-led troops killed four suspected al-Qaida members, including Arab and Chechen fighters, after raiding their hideout.

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