updated 10/21/2007 7:59:17 PM ET 2007-10-21T23:59:17

Suspected Taliban militants fought fierce battles with U.S. forces in eastern Afghanistan, killing 20 insurgents and one civilian, officials said Sunday.

The Defense Ministry said the joint Afghan-NATO operation was launched Saturday in the Korengal Valley in Kunar province — next to the border with Pakistan — with artillery fire and airstrikes.

The ministry said 20 “enemy” fighters were killed in the battles, while Kunar Gov. Didar Shalizai said one civilian died. Maj. Charles Anthony, spokesman for NATO’s International Security Assistance Force, said 11 civilians were wounded.

Anthony said elders in the area indicated that the suspected militants had used civilians as human shields or fired on NATO forces from positions with civilians in the area.

NATO has frequently accused Taliban fighters of using Afghan civilians as human shields, particularly in the country’s south, but Shalizai called the co-opting of civilians a “new tactic” in Kunar province.

The fighting in the east comes on the heels of battles in the south that saw about 50 militants killed in two days of fighting this past week near Musa Qala, a Taliban-controlled town in Helmand province — southern Afghanistan’s poppy-growing belt.

This year has been the most violent since the U.S.-led coalition ousted the Taliban from power in 2001. More than 5,200 people have died in insurgency-related violence this year, according to an Associated Press count based on figures from Afghan and Western officials.

Also Saturday, Afghan and British officials said that Afghan President Hamid Karzai would fly to London on Sunday for an official four-day visit to Britain.

Karzai’s office said he would hold talks with British Prime Minister Gordon Brown on bilateral relations, regional issues, security and Britain’s role in rebuilding Afghanistan and training its army. He would also meet with Queen Elizabeth II and Prince Charles.

Britain’s Foreign Office confirmed the visit, which officially begins Monday, but did not provide further details of Karzai’s itinerary.

Britain has 7,700 troops in Afghanistan as part of the NATO force — an increase of more than 2,000 over the past year — most based in the restive southern province of Helmand.

Eighty-two British personnel have died in Afghanistan since the U.S.-led invasion in 2001, many of them killed in fighting with a resurgent Taliban.

NATO spokesman, James Appathuri, told British Broadcasting Corp. radio Sunday that Britain was considering sending even more troops to southern Afghanistan.

Britain’s Ministry of Defense said it was constantly reviewing its force levels in Afghanistan but had no plans to announce an increase in troop numbers.

© 2012 The Associated Press. All rights reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten or redistributed.


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