38 Taliban, NATO soldier killed in Afghanistan

KABUL (AFP) – US and Afghan troops backed by warplanes killed more than 35 Taliban militants during a five-hour battle in a bitterly contested area of southern Afghanistan, the US-led coalition said Friday.

Meanwhile a NATO-led International Security Assistance Force (ISAF) soldier was killed in a separate gunbattle with rebels on Friday, becoming the 12th foreign soldier to die in Afghanistan in a week.

US special forces and Afghan troops also killed three Taliban who pinned down a group of civilian contractors after their helicopter came down in another area.

The fighting on Thursday in which most of the rebels were killed took place in the Sangin district of Helmand province, which around 1,000 Afghan and international troops wrested from insurgent control at the weekend.

“More than 35 Taliban fighters were killed by ANA (Afghan National Army) and coalition forces during the five-hour afternoon battle,” the coalition said in a statement.

The statement said the clashes erupted after the troops identified several militant groups in the region. US air support was also called to pursue the fighters as they fled, the statement said.

Sangin is one of several districts in southern Afghanistan that have been out of government control at times during the last year amid a fierce insurgency led by the Islamist Taliban.

The NATO soldier, whose name and nationality were not revealed, was killed in a firefight with rebels in an unnamed part of southern Afghanistan on Friday, ISAF said in another statement. Two other NATO troops were injured.

The death brought to 40 the number of international troops killed in Afghanistan this year. Some 170 were killed there in 2006.

It came a day after two NATO soldiers were killed in separate explosions in southern Afghanistan, and follows Canada’s heaviest single-day troop loss in 50 years with the deaths of six soldiers near Kandahar on Sunday.

Separately on Thursday five civilian contractors had to be rescued after their helicopter made a forced landing in southeastern Ghazni province late Thursday.

The Taliban earlier said it had “hit” a NATO helicopter there.

Militants started firing at the passengers, who evaded them “until coalition close air support arrived and engaged the pursuing enemy fighters. Three extremists were killed in the engagement,” a coalition statement said.

“With the recent kidnappings by extremists, these brave soldiers and policemen, who rescued the civilians, likely prevented another cowardly hostage taking,” coalition spokesman Major Christopher Belcher said.

Two French aid workers were apparently kidnapped by the Taliban in southwestern Nimroz province on April 3.

French President Jacques Chirac called his Afghan counterpart Hamid Karzai late Thursday to “demand his support” for efforts to free them, according to Karzai’s office.

“The president in response assured that all relevant Afghan authorities will do their utmost to secure their release,” it said.

The Taliban beheaded an Afghan journalist kidnapped with an Italian reporter a month ago. The Italian journalist was freed after two week in captivity under a deal which saw five Taliban free from Afghan jails.

Around 1,000 people, most of them militants, have died in insurgency-related violence this year.

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