updated 8/12/2006 8:39:48 AM ET 2006-08-12T12:39:48

Three U.S. soldiers were killed and three wounded in a firefight in northeastern Afghanistan after militants attacked an American patrol with rocket-propelled grenades and small arms fire, a military spokesman said Saturday.

U.S. troops used artillery to repel the attack in Nuristan province Friday, and helicopters rushed the wounded soldiers to medical care, said Col. Tom Collins. A civilian was also injured.

U.S. forces in recent weeks have been pushing to their northernmost points along the mountainous Afghan-Pakistan border, including Nuristan, opening military bases in one of the wildest region in the country.

Their mission is to crush militants loyal to the Hezb-e-Islami militant group of renegade Afghan warlord Gulbuddin Hekmatyar, the toppled Taliban regime and remnants of Osama bin Laden’s al-Qaida network.

Separately, a highway police commander was killed by a blast on his way to work in eastern Lagman province, said Interior Ministry spokesman Yousef Stanezai.

The commander patrolled a major road between Kunar and Nangarhar provinces, which hug the Pakistan border, the spokesman said, offering no further details.

An explosion occurred outside a NATO base in Kabul early Saturday. No one was injured in the blast, said Maj. Toby Jackman, spokesman for the NATO-led force. It was unclear if it was a bombing or rocket attack by insurgents.

Huge surge in violence
Afghanistan has seen a surge in violence this year, particularly in the south, where rebel supporters of the toppled Taliban regime have stepped up attacks, as Afghan and NATO-led troops try to drive insurgents out of their safe havens.

The fighting has been the bloodiest since the Taliban was ousted in late 2001. In a two-month offensive in the south that ended at the start of August, the coalition claimed to have killed, wounded or captured some 1,100 militants.

Tom Koenigs, the top U.N. official in Afghanistan, told the German news weekly Der Spiegel that the numbers do not reflect success.

“The Taliban fighters’ reservoir is practically limitless,” Koenigs told the magazine in an interview. “The movement will not be overcome by high casualty figures.”

The worsening security situation contributed to a fourfold rise in polio cases this year, almost entirely in the insurgency-wracked south, Afghanistan’s Health Ministry said Saturday.

Afghanistan has suffered 24 cases so far this year, all but one in the south, compared to nine cases during all of 2005, all in the south, said Dr. Shukrullah Wahidi, who oversees the ministry’s polio program.

He blamed the region’s rising violence, difficulty in establishing health services and poor communication with community leaders.

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