Fierce clashes around Afghan opium centre

Canadian and Afghan troops have killed five Taliban militants in fierce clashes around an opium-rich southern village, the military said. Two Canadian soldiers were also wounded, while a separate roadside bombing claimed the first life of a Peruvian soldier in Afghanistan.

Meanwhile, five Spanish peacekeepers were wounded by an explosion while on patrol yesterday in western Afghanistan, the Defence Ministry said.

One of them is in very serious condition, while the other four suffered slight injuries, the ministry said in a statement.

The troops were on patrol near the town of Farah when the blast occurred. Spanish military officials are trying to determine if the explosion came from a mine or a remote-controlled device, the ministry said. It gave no further details.

Spain has 680 troops taking part in the international peacekeeping mission in Afghanistan. They are based in the western city of Heart.

Fighting broke out early yesterday in southern Kandahar province’s Panjwayi district and raged into the evening after coalition troops moved into the region to hunt Taliban forces, said coalition spokeswoman Captain Julie Roberge.

Remnants of the toppled Taliban regime have established a ”stronghold” in Panjwayi, Roberge said. Eyewitnesses said bands of armed insurgents travel around the district on motorcycles.

Military commanders on the ground estimated that five militants were killed and one wounded, while another four were detained, Roberge said.

Two Canadian troops were also wounded, including one seriously who was evacuated to a coalition military facility in Germany for treatment, said Canadian spokesman Major Marc Theriault.

An Afghan soldier was also wounded.

Panjwayi is an agricultural area where about 70% of farms cultivate opium poppies. Afghanistan provides 90% of the world’s supply, and Taliban extremists are believed to use harvest proceeds to fund their insurgency.

Tribal elder Haji Zainuddin Khan, from the Pashor area of Panjwayi, said fighting has raged in the district for two months, forcing many villagers to flee to other towns and villages for their own safety.

“We are caught in the middle. There are hundreds of Taliban in the area causing us problems, staying in our orchards and we can’t tell them anything,” Khan said. ”And then we have the coalition attacks in the area against the Taliban which scare the people, especially the children.”

Theriault, the Canadian spokesman, said the Panjwayi offensive was part of Operation Mountain Thrust, a large-scale US-led operation across southern Afghanistan targeting Taliban militants believed behind a spike in bombings and ambushes.

“Panjwayi is an important centre for the Taliban, which is why we are going in there to conduct operations against them,” he told The Associated Press.

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