updated 3/15/2004 12:58:01 PM ET 2004-03-15T17:58:01

U.S.-led troops surprised eight enemy fighters in a cave complex in southeastern Afghanistan, prompting a gunbattle in which three militiamen were killed and five others were wounded, the American military said Monday.

The fighting was the first reported by the U.S. military since the March 7 start of a new sweep for insurgents and terror leaders, including Osama bin Laden and Taliban chief Mullah Mohammed Omar.

The Taliban and their allies appear to have launched their own new offensive along the unstable Afghan-Pakistan frontier, killing an Afghan soldier at checkpoint in the latest attack.

The gunbattle occurred Saturday morning as dozens of troops, including special forces, searched caves southwest of Qalat, the capital of Zabul province, 240 miles southwest of Kabul, spokesman Lt. Col. Bryan Hilferty said.

Caught by surprise
Hilferty said none of the coalition force was harmed.

“We surprised them,” Hilferty said. “I don’t know who started the engagement.”

Also Saturday, coalition troops detained five militiamen in the caves and found “anti-coalition propaganda,” Hilferty said. He gave no details.

Hilferty said eight more suspects were detained in the same area Sunday.

Zabul is one of the provinces along the rugged Pakistani border where Taliban guerrillas are believed to have taken refuge after the ouster of the hard-line Islamic regime by a U.S.-led coalition in late 2001.

The military announced a new operation on Saturday called Mountain Storm, a revamp of its efforts to crush militants and capture their leaders — aiming to make the region safe for reconstruction and summer elections, and capture bin Laden and others.

Commanders say they are working in a “hammer-and-anvil” approach with Pakistani troops on the other side of the frontier to pin down guerrillas using the mountains as a base.

Pakistani President Gen. Pervez Musharraf said Monday that there were 500 to 600 suspected foreign terrorists living in the semiautonomous tribal areas along the border, and vowed to drive them out if they would not surrender.

Ongoing violence
More than 160 people have died in violence this year in Afghanistan, including aid workers and government employees as well as Afghan and foreign troops.

On Monday, an Afghan soldier was killed and another injured when four people opened fire from a vehicle at a checkpoint near Maywand, 45 miles west of Kandahar, an Afghan military commander said.

“Our forces fired on the vehicle, but we don’t know if they were hit, because it sped away toward the north,” the commander, Gen. Khan Mohammed, said.

He blamed Taliban militants, but didn’t elaborate. Troops were sent to the area to investigate, he said.

On Saturday, suspected Taliban armed with rockets and heavy machine guns attacked a government office near the border in Kandahar province, sparking a gunbattle that left three attackers and one Afghan soldier dead.

Hilferty also said that two American airmen were injured, one seriously, when a mine exploded at Bagram Air Base, the main American military camp north of Kabul, on Saturday.

“We believe it was just an old one left over from the wars here,” he said.

The seriously injured airmen was evacuated to Germany for treatment. The other was under observation at Bagram, he said. The soldiers were not identified.

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

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