US claims 80 Taliban killed in battle


US-led coalition and Afghan troops killed some 80 Taliban fighters in a six-hour battle following an ambush in southern Afghanistan, the US military claimed today.

According to the military account, Taliban fighters opened fire yesterday with machineguns and rocket-propelled grenades on a joint coalition and Afghan army patrol from a trench near Musa Qala in Helmand province, the most important town held by insurgents.

"The combined patrol immediately returned fire, manoeuvred, and employed close air support resulting in almost seven dozen Taliban fighters killed during a six hour engagement," the US military statement said.

Such large pitched battles are relatively rare in Afghanistan, where the Taliban prefer to "shoot and scoot" before air strikes can be called in.

But the insurgents are expected to fight hard to defend Musa Qala, around which their fighters are heavily dug in after taking control of the town in February, security analysts say.

A Taliban official in the town denied any insurgents had been killed around Musa Qala and accused foreign forces of dropping bombs on civilians.

The Taliban hanged three men in Musa Qala yesterday, accusing them of spying for foreign forces, another Taliban official in the town said. Two were strung up at the entrance to the town and the other in the town centre.

Foreign military forces say they are capable of taking back Musa Qala at any time, but do not want to do so until an Afghan civilian administration and security forces are ready to immediately move in and take control of the town.

Elsewhere, several Taliban insurgents were killed after an ambush on US-led coalition troops in neighbouring Kandahar province, the US military said.

NATO-led forces are also conducting operations in Helmand and Kandahar, but unlike the US-led coalition force, do not release Taliban casualty figures.

Afghanistan has seen a sharp rise in violence since the Taliban regrouped and re-launched their offensive against the Afghan government and its Western backers two years ago.

More than 7,000 people have been killed in that time.

US-led and Afghan forces ousted the Taliban from power in late 2001 after the hardline Islamist movement refused to hand over al Qaeda leaders following the September 11 attacks on the United States.