Taliban militants and the U.S.-led coalition fought a daylong battle in southern Afghanistan’s poppy-growing belt Tuesday, killing more than 60 Taliban fighters and one coalition soldier, military officials said.
Dozens of insurgents attacked a joint coalition-Afghan patrol near the town of Musa Qala in Helmand province with machine guns, mortars and rocket-propelled grenades, the coalition said in a statement. Taliban reinforcements flowed in from Musa Qala all day, it said.
The coalition troops returned fire and called in artillery fire and attacks by fighter-bombers, leaving more than 60 of the Taliban fighters dead, the coalition said. One coalition soldier was killed and four were wounded.
The statement said there were no immediate reports of civilian deaths or injuries.
“The end is near for the Taliban that believe Musa Qala is safe from Islamic Republic of Afghanistan forces,” said Maj. Chris Belcher, a coalition spokesman. “This combined operation is just one more step to securing the Musa Qalah area of the Helmand Province.”
Taliban militants overran Musa Qala last February, four months after British troops left the town following a contentious peace agreement that handed over security responsibilities to Afghan elders. The town has been in the Taliban’s control ever since.
Opium poppies grown in area
Situated in northern Helmand province, Musa Qala and the area around it have seen the heaviest fighting in Afghanistan this year. It is the main area for growing illicit opium poppies, a crop that allows Afghanistan to produce more than 90 percent of the world’s heroin.
More than 4,400 people — mostly militants — have died in insurgency-related violence this year, according to an Associated Press count based on figures from Afghan and Western officials.
The head of the U.S. Drug Enforcement Agency, Karen Tandy, said counternarcotics forces will soon work alongside counterinsurgency troops to try to arrest Afghan drug lords.
“The alliance between these high value drug traffickers and the insurgents clearly has grown,” Tandy said during a visit to Afghanistan.
She said troops would not “pull plants or spray plants,” but just support interdiction efforts.
Violence persists across nation
Elsewhere, a NATO helicopter overturned while landing to evacuate Afghan policemen wounded by a roadside bomb in the western province of Badghis, but no hostile fire was involved in the accident, NATO said. A second helicopter flew out the crew and two wounded officers, it said.
In the southern province of Kandahar, a suicide bomber blew himself up next to a convoy of a border security commander, killing five police officers, said the district border security commander, Abdul Raziq Khan, who was not hurt. Three policemen and a civilian were wounded.
Canadian military officials reported that a Canadian soldier, Cpl. Nathan Hornburg, 24, was killed and four comrades were wounded while on patrol Monday in the Panjwayi district of the southern province of Kandahar.
On Monday, Canadian Defense Minister Peter MacKay said his government would announce by April whether it will extend Canada’s combat mission. Seventy-one Canadian soldiers and one diplomat have died in Afghanistan since the Taliban regime was ousted in late 2002.