updated 9/5/2006 1:32:03 PM ET 2006-09-05T17:32:03

U.S. artillery and airstrikes killed between 50 and 60 suspected Taliban militants Tuesday, the fourth day of a NATO-led offensive in southern Afghanistan, an alliance spokesman said.

NATO already has reported more than 200 Taliban killed in the operation.

The U.S. troops, operating under NATO command, clashed with the militants in Panjwayi district of Kandahar province, where an offensive began over the weekend to flush out hundreds of Taliban fighters.

Maj. Quentin Innis, a NATO spokesman, said the troops had identified Taliban positions and the two sides had exchanged fire. He said the estimate of 50 to 60 killed was based on reports from troops looking through “weapons sights and other observation devices.”

He said there had been no NATO or Afghan troop casualties.

It wasn’t possible for reporters to reach the site of the battle to independently confirm the death toll.

The Afghan Defense Ministry also said 200 militants had died since Saturday — increasing its previously reported toll of 89. The dead included four Taliban commanders and 12 of their bodyguards, a ministry statement said, citing intelligence reports.

Five Canadian soldiers have also been killed, one in a friendly fire incident Monday involving a U.S. warplane.

Mullah Dadullah, the Taliban military commander for south and southeastern Afghanistan, has rejected NATO’s claims of more than 200 dead.

Qari Yousaf Ahmadi, who claims to speak for the Taliban, said if NATO had killed so many Taliban fighters, they should show them to the media. He also denied that hundreds of Taliban militants were trapped in Panjwayi, and said its fighters were battling NATO and Afghan forces there. He spoke to an Associated Press reporter by phone from an undisclosed location.

Another NATO spokesman Maj. Scott Lundy said earlier Tuesday that an estimated 700 militants were “trapped” in an area spanning several hundred square miles in Panjwayi and Zhari districts, some in fortified compounds, others moving in the open.

NATO has also reported 80 Taliban have been arrested and that another 180 have fled the fighting — some of the most intense since the fall of the Taliban regime nearly five years ago.

“It’s a complex battle space. Some (Taliban) elements are fixed, others are moving,” Lundy said.

During Monday’s clashes, a U.S. A-10 Thunderbolt warplane supporting NATO mistakenly strafed Canadian troops fighting Taliban forces in Panjwayi, killing one soldier and seriously wounding five.

A top U.S. general expressed sadness over the incident, which was being investigated by a board of military officers.

“The death or injury of each and every coalition member is a tragedy that saddens us, our families and the military and civilian members of the coalition,” Lt. Gen. Gary North, commander of U.S. Central Command Air Forces said in a statement.

A 12-year old girl was killed and nine other civilians were treated for wounds from the fighting in Panjwayi at a Kandahar hospital, said Dr. Qayyum Pohya, the hospital’s chief.

Fighting between resurgent Taliban militants and U.S. and NATO forces has left hundreds dead in the past four months — the deadliest violence since the pro-al-Qaida Taliban regime’s 2001 ouster.

The latest clashes came as NATO leaders, including Secretary General Jaap de Hoop Scheffer and top commander U.S. Gen. James L. Jones, were in Afghanistan for talks with Afghan officials on a security and development accord and to assess progress in the alliance’s mission to stabilize the volatile south.

The NATO chiefs, who arrived in Afghanistan late Monday, are due to travel around the country and on Wednesday meet beleaguered President Hamid Karzai. Their three-day visit will coincide with a trip to Kabul by neighboring Pakistan’s President Gen. Pervez Musharraf.

Pakistan, a key Western ally in the war on terrorism, is under increasing pressure to crackdown on Taliban on its soil. Afghanistan claims militia leaders stay in Pakistan and that militants launch cross-border attacks. Pakistan denies the presence of Taliban leaders and says it has 80,000 troops at the border to stop infiltration.

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