updated 7/16/2008 4:43:52 AM ET 2008-07-16T08:43:52

U.S. and Afghan troops have abandoned a remote outpost in eastern Afghanistan where militants killed nine American soldiers earlier this week, officials said Wednesday.

Compounding the military setback, insurgents quickly seized the village of Wanat in Nuristan province after driving out the handful of police left behind to defend government offices there, Afghan officials said.

Senior provincial police official Ghoolam Farouq said some 50 officers were on their way to the area in a bid to regain control.

Sunday's attack by some 200 militants armed with machine guns, rocket-propelled grenades and mortars was the deadliest for the U.S. military in Afghanistan in three years.

Rebels fought their way into the new base, wounding another 15 Americans and suffering heavy casualties of their own, before the defenders and warplanes could drive them back.

Militants appear to be gaining strength
The assault underlined how Islamic militants appear to be gaining strength nearly seven years after the ouster of the Taliban, and the difficulties facing foreign and Afghan forces trying to defeat them.

NATO confirmed that the post, which lies amid precipitous mountains close to the Pakistan border, had been vacated while insisting that international and Afghan troops will "retain a strong presence in that area with patrolling and other means."

"We are committed, now more than ever, to establishing a secure environment that will allow even greater opportunities for development and a stronger Afghan governmental influence," NATO spokesman Capt. Mike Finney said.

Omar Sami, spokesman for the Nuristan provincial governor, said American and Afghan soldiers quit the base on Tuesday afternoon. He said they took the district mayor with them.

Sami said U.S. troops armed local police with more than 20 guns before they left, but that the officers had fled the village and crossed into neighboring Kunar province when 100 militants moved into Wanat.

Afghanistan and the fight against al-Qaida and Taliban militants holed up along the Pakistan border are taking center stage in the foreign policy debate between American presidential hopefuls.

Democrat Barack Obama said Tuesday that fighting al-Qaida and the Taliban in Afghanistan would be his top priority rather than the war in Iraq. He said he would send two more U.S. combat brigades to Afghanistan.

Republican John McCain said U.S. commanders in Afghanistan needed three additional brigades — nearly 11,000 troops — but he said they must be deployed under the kind of revamped strategy that has brought down violence in Iraq.

McCain also expressed concern that Afghanistan's president, Hamid Karzai, who has the backing of the administration of President Bush, "has not been effective."

At least 12 Taliban reportedly killed
In other violence reported Wednesday, a suicide bombing and a series of clashes left at least 12 Taliban militants and one civilian dead.

The governor of Kandahar said eight militants were killed during an operation in the southern province's Khakrez district in the past two days.

A regional Taliban commander, Mullah Mahmoud, who controlled about 250 fighters, was among those killed, a NATO statement said.

Police said the suicide bomber attacked one of their patrols in Lashkar Gah, the capital of neighboring Helmand province, killing a civilian and wounding six other people, including a policeman.

In eastern Paktika province, police said four militants planning attacks on supply trucks were killed in an airstrike early Wednesday.

Copyright 2008 The Associated Press. All rights reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten or redistributed.


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