updated 4/8/2007 12:20:13 AM ET 2007-04-08T04:20:13

More than 1,000 NATO and Afghan troops clashed with Taliban and took over control of a district center in southern Afghanistan long held by the militants, officials and witnesses said Saturday.

The troops used helicopters, armored vehicles and infantry in their push toward the town of Sangin in Helmand province, the world’s biggest opium-producing region, NATO’s International Security Assistance Force said in a statement late Friday.

“Military troops have successfully engaged several Taliban extremist strongholds and discovered a number of large weapon caches,” the statement said.

The operation to retake Sangin from militants started late Wednesday and is part of NATO’s largest ever offensive in Afghanistan, Operation Achilles, launched last month to flush out Taliban militants from the northern tip of Helmand province and open the way for multimillion-dollar repair work on a dam in Kajaki district which would supply the country’s south with electricity.

“There was very heavy fighting between foreign forces, Afghan forces and Taliban in Sangin two nights ago,” Sangin resident Haji Akhtar Mohammad said Saturday.

NATO and Afghan troops are in control of the center of Sangin and the Taliban appear to be moving toward the neighboring district of Musa Qala, which is still under the militants’ control, Mohammad said.

About 4,500 NATO and 1,000 Afghan forces are in and around Helmand province as part of Operation Achilles. In the last several months, Taliban militants and foreign fighters have streamed into the province, according to U.S. and NATO officials.

There have been over 220 “tactical engagements” since the start of the operation and dozens of militants were killed or captured, according to NATO officials in Kabul.

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