msnbc.com news services
updated 1/6/2009 7:31:16 AM ET 2009-01-06T12:31:16

Two gunmen shot a Muslim cleric to death inside a mosque in southern Afghanistan, the second such incident in the area in less than two weeks, an official said Tuesday.

The two men drove up to the mosque in Kandahar city on a motorcycle Monday night, shot the cleric, then drove off, Zulmai Hayubi, a spokesman for provincial Gov. Tooryalai Wesa, told The Associated Press. The attackers have not been identified.

Separately, NATO's British forces were checking a report that some civilians were killed during an operation against Taliban insurgents in neighboring Helmand province.

Hundreds of Afghans were killed in air strikes and raids by foreign troops last year, undermining public support for the presence of international forces and leading to a rift between President Hamid Karzai and his Western backers.

Cleric's killing
The cleric's killing follows a similar attack a little more than a week ago in which the head of one of Kandahar's main mosques was shot to death by gunmen while sitting inside the mosque.

Hayubi said both incidents were under investigation, and it was unclear if the attackers were Taliban or people angered or insulted by the clerics in some way.

Also on Monday, Taliban fighters attacked a police checkpoint south of Kandahar city, killing three officers in the ensuing gunfight, regional Police Chief Ghulam Ali Wahadkt said.

He said another officer was wounded and three were missing after the morning clash. Wahadkt said they did not have any information on Taliban casualties.

Report of civilian deaths
Five members of a family were killed in an operation by British forces in Helmand's Baghni district on Monday night, a provincial government source told Reuters.

No further details were given by the official.

"We are looking into this," Major Steve Melbourne, a spokesman for the British forces in Helmand, said by phone.

Nearly 700 civilians were killed up to October last year in raids by foreign and Afghan forces, an Afghan rights body said last month, quoting a U.N. estimate.

Violence has surged to its worst level in Afghanistan since the Taliban, ousted in a U.S.-led invasion in 2001, regrouped four years ago.

On Tuesday, a soldier from the NATO-led force was killed in an attack in a southern area, the alliance said. Further details were not immediately available.

More on Taliban   |  NATO in Afghanistan

Reuters and The Associated Press

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