- Afghanistan - insurgency - US military - war
AFP - Two US soldiers and at least 22 militants died in fighting in eastern Afghanistan Saturday, as Marines battling in the south pressed one of their biggest assaults of the eight-year war.
The US military said two American soldiers were killed and another four wounded in an explosion in the eastern province of Paktika, which borders Pakistan and where government troops are locked in battles with militants.
"There was an explosion, a possible IED (improvised-explosive device), in Paktika province this morning in which two US service members were killed," said military spokesman Sergeant Charles Marsh.
"Then the base came under random fire by insurgents. We do have two US service members killed and four wounded," said Marsh.
Air support was then called in against rebels, he said.
The slain soldiers were operating under the NATO-led International Security Assistance Force, the alliance said later in a statement, adding that they had died in a bomb explosion.
The interior ministry in Kabul said 22 rebels were killed in that incident, without mentioning the US casualties, in line with policy.
However, Hamidullah Zhwak, a spokesman for the local Afghan administration, put the militants' death toll at 32.
Zhwak said the US casualties were caused when Taliban insurgents blew up a fuel tanker in front of a local government building in the district of Zirok.
"After the blast, American helicopters came in and attacked the Taliban who were preparing to attack the district headquarters," he said.
"Thirty-two Taliban were killed," Zhwak said, adding that 32 dead bodies were recovered after a two-hour battle erupted between armed militants and US helicopter gunships following the initial explosion.
Eight other militants were injured and captured by troops, Zhwak said.
When contacted by AFP the US military, however, was not able to confirm the militants' casualties immediately.
The Taliban later claimed responsibility for what it described as a two-pronged attack in which five militants died, excluding a suicide bomber.
"Today Hafiz Omar carried out a suicide attack with 8,000 kilos of explosives in a (fuel) tanker on an American base... in Zirok," Taliban spokesman Zabihullah Mujahed told AFP.
"At the same time 100 mujahedin (holy fighters) attacked the base just after the explosion... Americans suffered heavy casualties and we lost five of our fighters," the spokesman said.
Paktika is one of the most troubled regions in the east where thousands of foreign, mainly US forces are battling a resurgent Taliban, who were evicted from power in Afghanistan by the 2001 US-led invasion.
The insurgency aims to topple the US-backed government of President Hamid Karzai and has this year reached its deadliest.
US President Barack Obama has made Afghanistan the centre-piece of his foreign policy, dispatching an extra 21,000 American troops as part of a sweeping new war plan to stabilise the country.
Nearly 4,000 Marines and 600 Afghan forces are pressing a massive operation in the southern province of Helmand, in a pivotal test for the new strategy and to protect the local population ahead of presidential polls on August 20.
So far only one US Marine has been reported killed in the offensive, which the US commanding officer said was becoming a "hell of a fight" Friday.
"We don't have any casualties. The enemy had, but we don't have figures," the Afghan defence ministry said in a short statement on Saturday.
The 1/5 Infantry Battalion met only light resistance in their push south and had already been able to meet locals at shuras (councils), Brigadier General Larry Nicholson said, speaking to a convoy with which AFP was travelling.
But "for 2/8 there is a hell of a fight going on in the southern quarter of the sector," the top Marine said on arrival at Garmsir, a town along the Helmand River that was a key objective for Operation Khanjar.
Commanders said they would persuade locals that the Afghan security forces -- backed by Western troops -- offered them a better long-term future than the fundamentalist Taliban militia as Afghanistan braces for elections next month.
Taliban spokesman Yousuf Ahmadi told AFP the group had not started directly fighting against the US Marine and a separate British operation under way for two weeks north of the provincial capital Lashkar Gah.
Militants had planted mines on various roads to meet the troops and some vehicles had been blown up, causing several casualties, he said.
Linked to the insurgency, two Afghan soldiers were killed when a roadside bomb struck their vehicle in Musa Qala, a former Taliban stronghold in Helmand on Friday, the defence ministry said.
The ministry blamed the bomb blast on the enemies of Afghanistan, a phrase reffered to the Taliban.