updated 3/22/2007 11:13:59 AM ET 2007-03-22T15:13:59

Fighting between Afghan forces and Taliban militants in a volatile southern province Thursday killed at least 28 militants, officials said.

The Afghan army and police carried out a joint operation in the Gereshk district of Helmand province, said Sher Mohammad Karimi, the Defense Ministry’s chief of operations. Ministry spokesman Mohammad Zahir Azimi said 28 Taliban were killed.

The two officials said no NATO or U.S. forces were involved.

Officials in Helmand province gave a higher death toll.

The deputy provincial police chief, Mohammad Eisah Khan, said 40 Taliban and three police had been killed, while the Gereshk district chief said 38 Taliban had been killed. Khan said 10 Taliban had also been arrested. The fighting took place on a remote battle site and none of the numbers could be independently confirmed.

Both Helmand officials said NATO forces were involved, but Lt. Col. Angela Billings, a spokeswoman for the NATO-led force, said she had no indication that NATO troops had taken part.

Karimi said a report from the field described the Taliban fighters as “very badly demoralized” and running from the fight. He said the fighters’ bodies had been left on the battle site, allowing soldiers to make an accurate count.

About 4,500 NATO and 1,000 Afghan forces are in and around Helmand province as part of Operation Achilles, launched earlier this month. Taliban militants and foreign fighters the last several months have streamed into Helmand province, the world’s leading opium-producing region, according to U.S. and NATO officials.

Operation Achilles has seen heavy fighting between British forces stationed in Helmand province and Taliban militants, but neither NATO or Afghan officials have reported any large-scale casualties among Taliban fighters during the operation.

Violence in Afghanistan has spiked in the last year, with Taliban militants setting off a record number of roadside and suicide attacks. U.S. and NATO officials have said they expect violence to again increase this spring and summer.

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