Canadian and Afghan troops have swarmed into the countryside outside Kandahar, southern Afghanistan's largest city, and claim to have closed "all possible escape" routes for hundreds of Taliban fighters.
Kandahar Governor Assadullah Khalid and Brig. Gen. Dennis Thompson, Commander of Canadian forces in Kandahar, said in a news conference today that government forces had taken control of "most parts of Arghandab," the district located just outside Kandahar.
Khalid claimed that more than 20 Taliban militants were killed during today's operation, with another 40 wounded.
He said two soldiers from the Afghan National Army were killed during the fighting, and four others, including a member of the Afghan National Police, were wounded.
Also, in a press statement released Wednesday, the Afghan interior ministry confirmed that Afghan security forces had shot and killed a suicide attacker targeting Afghan and coalition troops before he was able to cause any damage. The incident took place in district 2 of Kandahar.
A top provincial official in Kandahar, Ahmed Wali Karzai, the brother of Afghan President Hamid Karzai, said hundreds of families had fled to the city and that some of the villages had already been cleared of Taliban.
Helicopters and jets patrolled the skies and smoke rose from fields after exchanges of fire, an Associated Press reporter at the scene said. A helicopter landed in a field near the fighting and appeared to evacuate a casualty, he said. Large Canadian military vehicles and Afghan police trucks were moving through the region.
In recent days, families streamed out of the region and into Kandahar, claiming hundreds of Taliban had entered the region and were digging defensive positions.
Afghanistan's Ministry of Defense said on Tuesday that 300 to 400 Taliban fighters were operating in Arghandab, a lush region of pomegranate and grape fields that lies 10 miles northwest of Kandahar, the Taliban's spiritual home.
"From a strategic military point of view, Arghandab is a very good place for the Taliban," said Haji Agha Lalai, head of the province's reconciliation commission, which tries to assimilate former fighters. "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."
He said the militants had been destroying bridges and planting mines as defensive measures in hopes they can repel attacks from Afghan and NATO forces.
During his press conference, Khalid said Afghan troops were not calling for many air strikes to avoid damage to the grape and pomegranate fields. "Our forces are fighting on the ground," he said.
Canadian military officials who patrolled through Arghandab over the last day gave a different view of the reported battlefield, reporting "no obvious signs" of insurgent activity. But that didn't mean there were no Taliban there, a NATO news release said. Pentagon officials said reports of hundreds of Taliban in Arghandab were being overstated.
However, Karzai, the director of the provincial council, said more than 1,500 families had sought refuge in Kandahar out of fear and at least 100 Afghan troops were engaged in the fighting.
The Taliban spokesperson Qari Yousif Ahmadi denied reports of any Taliban losses, telling reporters that the heavy casualties were only on the government side.
The Taliban assault on the outskirts of Kandahar was the latest display of strength by the militants that has rattled the country, despite a record number of U.S. and NATO troops committed to Afghanistan. The push into Arghandab came three days after a coordinated Taliban attack on Kandahar's prison, which 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 country's volatile south.
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. At least one soldier was wounded.
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.
Aleem Agha and the Associated Press contributed to the reporting of this story.