Major Afghan offensive kills 200 militants

Warplanes dropped bombs on suspected Taliban fighters hiding in orchards in a major Afghan-Nato offensive that the alliance said killed more than 200 militants in southern Afghanistan. Four Canadian soldiers were killed.

Warplanes dropped bombs on suspected Taliban fighters hiding in orchards in a major Afghan-Nato offensive that the alliance said killed more than 200 militants in southern Afghanistan. Four Canadian soldiers were killed.

Booming explosions echoed above the grape and pomegranate fields in Panjwayi district, about 20 kilometres from Kandahar city, and kicked up clouds of dust, as high-flying planes pounded militants believed hiding amid the greenery and dried-mud houses.

An Associated Press reporter who travelled to the Pashmul area of the district, saw warplanes drop five bombs within about 20 minutes on the orchards where Taliban fighters were believed to be hiding. The reporter was standing about 300 meters away.

Operation Medusa was launched on Saturday to flush out Taliban fighters from Panjwayi and neighbouring Zhari district. Nato spokesman Maj. Scott Lundy said the Nato and Afghan forces had gained ground and had disrupted the militants’ command and control so their fighters were moving in a confused way.

The casualty counts – which if confirmed represent one of the deadliest combat actions since US-led forces ousted the Taliban regime five years ago – could not be independently verified.

Authorities have barred citizens from travelling on all but the main road running through this part of Kandahar province, and the battlefield could not be reached by reporters.

Earlier, Afghan Defence Ministry spokesman Gen. Zahir Azimi said Nato and Afghan forces had launched about 40 artillery and air strikes. He said 89 militants and a number of civilians had died during the two days of fighting. He cited intelligence reports but did not elaborate on how the number was obtained.

Afghan Defence Minister Abdul Rahim Wardak said the Taliban casualties were high, but could not confirm the Nato report of more than 200 dead.

Some 80 other suspected Taliban were arrested by Afghan police and a further 180 fled the area, Nato said.

Jason Husiak, a spokesman at the Canadian Department of National Defence, said four Canadian soldiers were killed in yesterday’s fighting and others wounded. Nato said there were seven wounded, one seriously, and six of them were expected to return to duty within a few days.

Nato said there were no reports of civilian casualties, despite the heavy weight of fire being used – at odds with Azimi’s report.

The weekend’s deaths pushed the total number of foreign troops killed in Afghanistan so far this year beyond the 130 killed in all of 2005 – an indication of the dramatic escalation in violence sparked by an upsurge in Taliban attacks.

Nato forces took command of security in Afghanistan’s volatile southern provinces from a US-led coalition in August amid the bloodiest fighting since the Taliban fell in late 2001.

According to an AP tally of figures from NATO, the US military and Afghan officials, more than 1,800 people, mostly militants, have died in violence in the past four months.

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