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U.S. calls in airstrikes on Afghan militants

/ Source: The Associated Press

American troops caught in a gunfight with Afghan militants called in air strikes, the U.S. military said Wednesday, in fighting that an Afghan commander said killed some 20 Taliban rebels at a newly discovered camp in the south.

The battle occurred Tuesday in the Arghistan district of Kandahar province, about 120 miles southwest of the capital, Kabul, provincial military commander Khan Mohammed said.

American spokesman Lt. Col. Tucker Mansager said a U.S.-led patrol encountered a group of militants in the area after nightfall. Engaged in a firefight, the troops called in warplanes "for a show of force."

"When that did not work, they used precision ordnance," Mansager told reporters. "They were effective as far as we know."

He said no American soldiers were hurt and that troops were searching the area Wednesday for enemy casualties.

Mansager said he had no information on the involvement of Afghan troops in the incident, but Khan said the airstrike followed an assault by about 150 of his men on a Taliban camp on a rough mountainside.

Khan said three Afghan soldiers were injured in the three-hour gunfight.

"After that, U.S. warplanes came and started bombing the Taliban area," Khan said. "U.S. forces told us that they had seen the bodies of about 20 dead Taliban."

Spiral of violence
The clash appeared to be the most deadly since American-led forces and insurgents stepped up operations in the spring, fueling a spiral of violence that has left more than 350 people dead this year and cast a shadow over plans for national elections in September.

American commanders currently have about 20,000 troops in Afghanistan, including some 2,000 extra Marines stationed in the south of the country, the largest force since the Taliban government was ousted in 2001 for harboring Osama bin Laden.

The top U.S. general here has vowed to crush anti-government militants, who also include followers of fugitive warlord Gulbuddin Hekmatyar, this year with a combination of military might and reconstruction aid to persuade ordinary Afghans to turn their back on the militants and support the faltering peace process.

Despite the violence, NATO-led peacekeepers and the separate U.S.-led combat force have pledged to help ensure security for the country's first post-Taliban elections slated for September.

A Norwegian peacekeeper died Sunday in a rocket attack in Kabul claimed by a purported Taliban spokesman.