U.S. Marines tracked down a band of insurgents in eastern Afghanistan and sparked a battle that left about 23 rebels and two Americans dead, the U.S. military said Monday, in the latest sign of a revived Taliban-led insurgency.
The military said warplanes also joined the five-hour clash with about 25 insurgents on Sunday evening in Laghman, a province of an eastern opium-producing region where U.S. forces have regularly fought with militants.
Acting on intelligence about the rebels’ whereabouts, U.S. Marines “located the insurgents and an engagement ensued,” a brief statement from the U.S. military said. “Two U.S. Marines were killed.”
A second statement said “two insurgents were confirmed killed and another 21 suspected dead.”
Marines were clearing cave
The military said the Marines initially came under attack with small arms and rocket-propelled grenades from insurgents who split into two groups, one of which fled to a village and the other to a cave on a nearby ridge. The two Marines died while clearing the cave after A-10 ground attack planes had pounded the rebels holed up inside, the statement said, without elaborating.
Militants opposed to the U.S.-backed government of President Hamid Karzai have made good on threats to step up their three-year-old insurgency, carrying out assaults and bombings that have killed dozens of Afghan and U.S. troops and government officials in recent weeks.
However, they have suffered heavy casualties in clashes where American warplanes have caught them in large groups on open ground.
The Marines died days after the bloodiest fighting in Afghanistan in nine months, when U.S. and Afghan forces including American warplanes clashed with large groups of insurgents in two southern provinces.
Sixty-four rebels, nine Afghan soldiers and an Afghan policeman were reported killed, while six American troops were among the wounded.
Sept. elections could be key
American commanders insist they are wearing the insurgents down and persuading villagers along the Pakistani border to stop sheltering them.
They have also suggested that the United States might withdraw some of its 18,000 troops in Afghanistan after the Sept. 18 parliamentary elections supposed to crown the country’s democratic rebirth. But that depends on the success of a reconciliation plan that has prompted a string of former Taliban allies to give up the fight.
Sunday’s deaths brought to 143 the number of American troops killed in and around Afghanistan since the start of Operation Enduring Freedom in 2001, according to Defense Department statistics.