American and Afghan troops swept through forested mountains in eastern Afghanistan on Tuesday, killing 40 militant fighters in a hunt for insurgents responsible for one of the deadliest attacks of the war on U.S. troops, the Defense Ministry said.
Ten Afghan soldiers were also killed during the operations since Monday, most of them in Nuristan province's Kamdesh district, ministry spokesman Gen. Mohammad Zahir Azimi said.
The violence was part of a spate of attacks across the nation, including a roadside bomb strike on a NATO convoy in Sayed Abad district west of Kabul that wounded two foreign soldiers, said Capt. Elizabeth Mathias, an American media officer for NATO forces.
The Obama administration is struggling to spell out a strategy to quell the conflict, including whether it should escalate it by deploying as many as 40,000 additional troops. The U.S. currently has a 65,000-strong force in Afghanistan.
The country also is nearing a resolution to August's intensely disputed presidential vote. Election workers began recounting suspect ballots Monday, and a ruling on whether President Hamid Karzai won or will face a runoff is likely next week.
Remote Kamdesh, cut off from the rest of the region with no regular phone or radio contact and few roads, is where eight Americans and two Afghan security troopers died Saturday after hundreds of Taliban militants overwhelmed their thinly manned garrisons.
Azimi said joint operations were continuing Tuesday in Kamdesh, and seven insurgents had been arrested there.
Mathias, however, said there had "not been any significant engagement" in Kamdesh since Saturday. She said U.S. and Afghan forces were still in the remote area and had not pulled out. Mathias had no details on how insurgents carried out the attack or were able to inflict such heavy casualties.
NATO said in a statement that 100 attackers were killed in Saturday's fighting. The alliance had previously said only that coalition forces inflicted "heavy casualties" while defending the outposts with artillery, airstrikes and helicopter gunships.
The bloodshed was the heaviest U.S. loss of life in a single battle since July 2008, when nine American soldiers were killed by a raid on an outpost in the same province.
Kamdesh, about 20 miles from the Pakistani border and about 150 miles from Kabul, is known to be a haven for some al-Qaida fighters and militants loyal to Afghan warlord Gulbuddin Hekmatyar, whose military chief, Kashmir Khan, has been unsuccessfully targeted by U.S. missiles over the past eight years.
NATO said Saturday's attack was carried out "by local anti-Afghan forces, while local Taliban" and Hekmatyar fighters "may have helped facilitate" it. The Taliban have claimed responsibility.
Gunbattle and grenades
In other violence Tuesday, a patrol came under small arms and rocket-propelled-grenade fire in Logar province, southwest of Kabul, but there were no casualties, Mathias said. Logar police chief Gen. Mohammed Mustafa Mosseini said the attack sparked a gunbattle that led to the arrest of at least one militant.
In London, Britain's defense ministry said one British soldier died Monday after an explosion in southern Afghanistan. The soldier was on foot patrol near the Nad Ali district center in restive Helmand province.
AP Television News video from the site of the roadside bomb attack that left two NATO troops wounded in Sayed Abad district showed a damaged armored vehicle on its side near the road, with a blown-off wheel laying in a field as international forces secured the area.
A change of strategy?
This week, President Barack Obama and senior policy advisers are deciding whether to further escalate the conflict after adding 21,000 U.S. troops earlier this year. Congress, which is divided on the issue, takes up a massive defense spending bill this week before the president will have time to settle on a direction for the war.
Defense Secretary Robert Gates appealed Monday for calm amid the intense debate over the flagging war, and for time and privacy for the president to reach a decision. Gates' remarks appeared to be an implicit rebuke of the man he helped install as the top commander in Afghanistan, Gen. Stanley McChrystal, who has been lobbying in public for additional troops.
Gates has not said whether he supports McChrystal's recommendation to expand the number of U.S. forces by as much as nearly 60 percent.
Meanwhile, a recount of suspect votes from last month's disputed presidential election continued into its second day. Election officials in Kabul inspected dozens of ballot boxes, looking for multiple ballots marked by the same hand, for tallies that didn't square with ballot papers or ballots that were still attached to each other in bundles.
A U.N.-backed fraud panel has ordered the recount of about 13 percent of polling stations following charges of massive ballot-box stuffing and suspicious vote tallies in the Aug. 20 poll. Though preliminary results show President Hamid Karzai winning outright with 54.6 percent, enough votes are considered suspect that the voiding of tainted boxes could cause Karzai to dip below the 50 percent needed to avoid a runoff.
Afghan election officials have said they expect to be able to announce results next week.
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