Afghan and Canadian forces moved into a series of villages outside of southern Afghanistan's largest city Wednesday to root out Taliban militants, killing at least 36 insurgents, officials said.
Elsewhere, an explosion killed four British soldiers.
The Afghan Defense Ministry said more than 20 Taliban fighters had been killed in Tabin, a village in Arghandab. An official in Kabul said three Taliban group leaders were also killed further south.
A top provincial official in Kandahar said gunbattles killed two Afghan troops and 16 Taliban. Ahmed Wali Karzai, the brother of Afghan President Hamid Karzai, also said hundreds of families had fled to the city, and that some of the villages had already been cleared of Taliban.
Pomegranate and grape fields
Afghanistan's Ministry of Defense on Tuesday said between 300 and 400 militant fighters were operating in Arghandab — a lush region of pomegranate and grape fields that lies 10 miles northwest of Kandahar city, the Taliban's spiritual home.
Canadian Major-General Marc Lessard, the commander of NATO forces in southern Afghanistan, told Reuters that just under 1,000 Afghan National Army troops had been flown in from eastern Afghanistan to reinforce some 4,000 colleagues based in Kandahar and help in the operation.
"Are they really dug in? Are they really prepared to stand and fight and die? We don't know, we'll definitely see in a day or two," Lessard said.
NATO said it expects the operation to last for the next three days, adding the number of insurgents in the district had been "greatly exaggerated".
However, Karzai, the director of the provincial council, said more than 1,500 families had sought refuge in Kandahar out of fear, many staying with relatives.
Meanwhile, the British Ministry of Defense said four British soldiers were killed when an explosive was detonated against their vehicle during a patrol in neighboring Helmand province on Tuesday. One of the victims is believed to be a woman.
It was one of the deadliest attacks of the year on international troops. Four U.S. Marines were killed in a roadside bomb in nearby Farah province earlier this month, but prior to that, no more than three international troops had been killed in any one attack in Afghanistan this year.
The Taliban have long sought to control Arghandab and the good fighting positions its pomegranate and grape groves offer. With control cemented, militants could cross the countryside's flat plains for probing attacks into Kandahar, in possible preparation for an assault on their former spiritual home.
Haji Agha Lalai, a provincial council member and the head of the province's reconciliation commission, which brings former insurgents who lay down their weapons back into the folds of society, said the militants were destroying bridges and planting mines as defensive measures in hopes they can repel attacks from Afghan and NATO forces.
"From a strategic military point of view, Arghandab is a very good place for the Taliban," Lalai said. "Arghandab is close to Kandahar city, allowing the Taliban to launch ambushes and attacks more easily than any other place in the province. Secondly, it's covered with trees and gardens — they can easily hide from air strikes."
The Taliban assault on the outskirts of Kandahar was the latest display of strength by the militants despite a record number of U.S. and NATO troops in the country. The push into Arghandab came three days after a coordinated Taliban attack on Kandahar's prison that freed 400 insurgent fighters.
The hardline Taliban regime ousted from power in a 2001 U.S.-led invasion of Afghanistan regarded Kandahar as its main stronghold, and its insurgent supporters are most active in the volatile south of the country.