Afghan forces acting on a tip captured four regional Taliban commanders and killed six other militants in two separate weekend raids in southern Afghanistan, an Afghan governor said Monday.
But the weekend also saw the deaths of two American soldiers and their Afghan interpreter when a bomb hit their Humvee, the U.S. military said Sunday, capping another bloody week as Afghanistan prepares for its first post-Taliban vote.
Another U.S. soldier was injured in the blast on Saturday in Ghazni province, but returned to duty after treatment, American spokeswoman Master Sgt. Ann Bennett said.
The Taliban commanders were captured Saturday during a raid on a home in Tarinkot, the capital of Afghanistan’s Oruzgan province, said Jan Mohammed, the governor of the province. They offered no resistance.
Mullah Omar still on the run
Mohammed identified the men as Mullah Yaqub, Mullah Wali Mohammed, Mullah Taj Mohammed and Mullah Nasiem, all regional commanders of the militia. None are believed to be in the senior inner circle close to Mullah Mohammed Omar, who has been on the run since his government was ousted in late 2001.
“Our forces captured them without firing even a single shot,” the governor said. He said the Taliban commanders were planning attacks against Afghan and coalition forces.
The captured men later told their Afghan interrogators that some more Taliban commanders along with their fighters were hiding in Kishai mountains in Shah Wali Kot district, about 95 miles north of Kandahar.
“After getting this information, we sent our forces there on Sunday, who after a shootout killed six Taliban and captured two others,” Mohammed said. He said the Afghan forces did not suffer any casualties.
Mohammed gave no further details. He also would not say who the dead and two captured Taliban were.
Tarinkot is about 45 miles north of Kandahar, once the stronghold of the Taliban militia whose government was toppled as a result of U.S.-led operation in Afghanistan in late 2001.
Taliban rebels often target Afghan and coalition forces in many parts of Afghanistan.
In the deaths of U.S. soldiers, Bennett said they had been "conducting a security patrol in support of voter registration.” None of the dead or wounded were identified.
The two dead belonged to a Virginia Army National Guard unit based in Winchester, Va., said Lt. Col. William Phillips, an officer with the unit.
It was not immediately clear who carried out the bombing about 140 miles southwest of the capital, Kabul. But the area lies in a broad belt near Pakistan where suspected Taliban-led rebels regularly clash with U.S. and Afghan troops.
Deadly attacks continue
The deaths bring to about 58 the number of American soldiers killed in action in Afghanistan since U.S. forces entered the country in 2001 to drive the Taliban from power and attack its al-Qaida allies.
With accidents and deaths elsewhere, including several planes crashes, more than 130 American soldiers have died since Operation Enduring Freedom was launched in response to the Sept. 11 attacks in the United States.
Twenty-three of the combat deaths in Afghanistan have occurred this year, making 2004 the deadliest year yet, and undermining assertions by American and Afghan officials that militants are on the defensive and security is improving.
Violence has intensified in recent months as the country prepares for its first post-Taliban election — a vote for president on Oct. 9 which U.S.-backed President Hamid Karzai is widely expected to win.
U.S. Marines led offensives which killed more than 100 suspected militants during May and June in the Taliban strongholds of Uruzgan and Zabul provinces, but have failed to halt insurgent attacks.
In the past week alone, gunmen ambushed a convoy carrying election workers in Uruzgan, killing two; two Afghans working for a German relief agency died in a hail of gunfire in Paktia; and twin attacks on American convoys in Zabul left six soldiers wounded, two of them seriously.
The U.S.-led force of some 18,000 last month began a new operation focused on preventing attacks on the election process. About 30,000 newly trained Afghan national police and army soldiers and up to 10,000 NATO troops are also expected to be on duty during the voting.
U.S. steps up operations
American commanders say increased fighting is partly due to their stepped-up operations in Taliban strongholds populated mainly by ethnic Pashtuns, from whom the Taliban draw their main support.
U.S. forces have established a string of new bases across the south and east and are spending millions on relief projects in the hope of winning over local tribes and gaining intelligence.
American officials insist the attention devoted to the election has not diluted its efforts to track down militant leaders including al-Qaida chief Osama bin Laden, who some believe could be hiding along the mountainous Afghan-Pakistan border.