NATO forces fought two large groups of suspected Taliban militants crossing the border from Pakistan, and scores of insurgents were killed, the alliance said Thursday. A Taliban spokesman called the report “a complete lie.”
On the other side of the border, the Pakistan military attacked trucks used by insurgents for cross-border raids, army spokesman Maj. Gen. Shaukat Sultan said. He said it wasn’t clear if any militants were killed in the assault.
NATO said in a statement that its forces attacked the fighters with ground fire and airstrikes overnight in eastern Afghanistan. Gen. Murad Ali, the Afghan army regional deputy corps commander, said the insurgents had traveled into Paktika province with several trucks of ammunition.
NATO initially said that up to 150 militants had been killed, but Lt. Col. Paul Fitzpatrick, a U.S. military spokesman, said later Thursday that commanders had lowered the initial estimate to 130 militants killed or severely wounded.
Ali said more than 50 militants were killed late Wednesday and early Thursday. Mohammad Zahir Azimi, a spokesman for the Ministry of Defense, estimated the toll at 80.
It was not clear why there was such a disparity in the estimates. As is common in Afghanistan, independent confirmation of the death toll at the remote battle site was not immediately possible.
Dr. Muhammad Hanif, who claims to speak for the Taliban, said in a text message to an Associated Press reporter in Pakistan that the figure of 150 dead was “a complete lie.”
“The Americans want to boost morale of their troops while making such claims,” the message read.
Azimi said one Pakistani fighter was wounded and captured in the fighting. Rocket-propelled grenade launchers and machine guns were also recovered, he said.
Taliban militants last year launched a record number of attacks, and an estimated 4,000 people died in insurgency-related violence, the bloodiest year since the U.S.-led coalition ousted the Taliban regime in late 2001.
The fight in the Bermel district of Paktika province was the first major battle of 2007 and appeared to be the largest since an operation killed more than 500 suspected Taliban fighters in Kandahar province in September.
In early December, the alliance said it had killed 70-80 fighters in the southern province of Helmand but days later said that only seven to eight were killed.
Meanwhile, NATO forces called in airstrikes on Taliban positions during a clash in the village of Gereshk in Helmand province Wednesday, said Nabi Mulahkhail, a local police chief.
Among those killed was a local Taliban commander identified as Mullah Faqir Mohammad, the police official said. One Afghan soldier was wounded and evacuated to a NATO medical facility, the alliance said. Troops recovered weapons and ammunition in the militant compound, it said.
Pakistan offensive after peace pact
The Pakistani attack was the army’s first reported offensive in the North Waziristan tribal region since a controversial September peace deal between the government and pro-Taliban militants that critics say has provided a sanctuary for insurgents.
The army, acting on intelligence provided by the U.S.-led coalition in Afghanistan, also used mortars and artillery in the attack Wednesday night at Gurvek near the frontier, said Sultan, the Pakistani army spokesman.
Afghan and Western officials have criticized Pakistan’s efforts to contain Taliban-led fighters crossing the border to launch attacks in Afghanistan.
But Sultan said Wednesday’s offensive demonstrated how Pakistan could act swiftly and effectively if it was given “real-time” intelligence on cross-border militancy.
“We don’t deny that some people are coming from this side. That’s why we seek intelligence in real time. We are keen to stop it,” he said.
Sultan said the assault — which is likely to stoke anger among Muslim hard-liners in Pakistan — was not a violation of the September peace deal, which barred cross-border attacks by militants but did not prevent the army from taking action to prevent them.
Meanwhile, Gen. David Richards, senior commander of NATO’s 32,000 troops in Afghanistan, said after meeting Thursday with top Pakistan and Afghan army commanders in Islamabad that “we are confident that this conflict is winnable.”
“There are problems ... but we are confident that we can deal with them,” he said, referring to the cross-border insurgency by the Taliban.
He compared the porous Pakistani-Afghan border with the problems British troops faced in Northern Ireland with the IRA before the Good Friday peace accord of 1998.
“That is an 84-mile border, and not even in that campaign we managed to fully control it,” Richards told reporters after the meeting meant to coordinate military activities in the region.
The Pakistani-Afghan border is 1,550 miles long, “with mountains that are very hard to control,” he said.