msnbc.com news services
updated 9/3/2006 1:21:44 PM ET 2006-09-03T17:21:44

NATO and Afghan forces killed more than 200 suspected Taliban guerrillas with air strikes and artillery fire in a major offensive in a volatile province in southern Afghanistan, the alliance said Sunday.

A statement said four soldiers with the NATO-led International Security Assistance Force also died and seven were wounded in the fighting in Panjwayi district, about 10 miles from the city of Kandahar.

The casualty counts could not be independently confirmed because the government ordered vehicles to stay off roads leading to the area and reporters were unable to gain access to the battle zone. There was no indication of bodies being taken to local hospitals.

“Reports indicate that more than 200 Taliban fighters have been killed since Operation Medusa began early Saturday morning,” the NATO force said in a statement.

It said more than 80 suspected Taliban fighters were captured by Afghan police and a further 180 insurgents were seen fleeing the district.

NATO said there were no reports of civilian casualties, despite the heavy weight of fire being used. An Afghan Defense Ministry spokesman, Gen. Zahir Azimi, said earlier in the day that a number of civilians were killed.

NATO said its estimate of Taliban casualties was based on information from its “surveillance and reconnaissance assets” and reports from Afghan officials and civilians living nearby.

A NATO spokesman, Maj. Scott Lundy, said NATO and Afghan troops had gained ground during Operation Medusa and had disrupted the militants’ command and control so their fighters were moving in a confused way.

On Saturday, a reconnaissance plane supporting the offensive crashed, killing all 14 British military personnel on board. NATO said the plane was not brought down by hostile fire.

The insurgency is going through its bloodiest period since U.S.-backed forces overthrew a Taliban government in late 2001 after it refused to hand over al-Qaida leader Osama bin Laden after the Sept. 11 attacks on the United States.

More than 2,000 people, most of them militants, along with scores of civilians and aid workers as well as hundreds of Afghan security personnel have been killed so far this year, while over 100 foreign troops, have died, including those killed in Saturday’s plane crash.

The Associated Press and Reuters contributed to this report.

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