KABUL, Afghanistan – U.S.-led forces used artillery and airstrikes to kill more than 165 insurgents and repel massed assaults on coalition troops in two strongholds of Taliban militants and Afghanistan’s rampant drug trade, officials said Wednesday.Meanwhile, two foreigners from the International Red Cross who helped free a group of South Korean captives last month were kidnapped along with their two Afghan drivers after talking with militants about the release of a German hostage, officials said.
The battles in Helmand and Uruzgan provinces came shortly before President Bush and Afghan President Hamid Karzai met in New York to discuss worsening fighting in Afghanistan and growing opium production, insisting progress was being made.
Nearly six years after a U.S.-led offensive toppled the Taliban regime for sheltering Osama bin Laden, violence related to the insurgency has escalated. More than 4,500 people, mostly militants, have died this year, according to an Associated Press tally of figures from Afghan and Western officials.
The two latest battles came amid a spike in violence during the Muslim holy month of Ramadan and as the military makes a last big thrust against insurgents before colder weather forces a lull in fighting in the mountainous nation.
“Heading into the winter season, the (Afghan army) wanted to ensure that the Taliban know there are no safe havens,” said a U.S. military spokesman, Maj. Chris Belcher.
One of the battles was an assault by several dozen insurgents on a joint coalition-Afghan patrol near the Taliban-controlled town of Musa Qala in Helmand early Tuesday, which the U.S.-led coalition said set off a daylong fight that drew in more Taliban insurgents.
The coalition said its troops responded with artillery fire and attacks by fighter-bombers that killed more than 100 militants. One coalition soldier was reported killed and four were wounded. The coalition reported no civilian casualties.
The Taliban have held Musa Qala since February after British troops left following a peace agreement under which Afghan elders were made responsible for security.
Situated in the north of Helmand, Musa Qala and the region around it have been the front line of the bloodiest fighting this year. It is also the heartland of Afghanistan’s illicit opium poppy farms.
The coalition said the second battle was in neighboring Uruzgan province, where more than 80 Taliban fighters attacked a joint Afghan-coalition patrol from multiple bunkers near the village of Kakrak and set off a six-hour fight Tuesday night.
Artillery fire and air strikes on the Taliban positions killed more than 65 insurgents, the coalition said. Three civilians were wounded in the crossfire and taken to a military medical facility, it said. No Afghan or coalition soldiers were hurt.
The battle took place near Deh Rawood, where more than three dozen insurgents were killed six days earlier as they prepared an ambush, the coalition said.
“As with our forces near Musa Qala, this operation is intended to deny the enemies of peace the use of Deh Rawood as a safe haven,” Belcher said.
Karzai and Bush talked on the sidelines of the U.N. General Assembly. Despite the rise in opium production and the surge in Taliban activities, Bush said Afghanistan is becoming a safer, more stable country because of Karzai’s efforts.
“Mr. President, you have strong friends here,” Bush told the Afghan leader after they met for about an hour at a hotel. “I expect progress and you expect progress and I appreciate the report you have given me today.”
Karzai said that “Afghanistan has indeed made progress,” citing improvements in basic services such as roads and education.
This year has been the most violent since the fall of the Taliban, and opium poppy cultivation is also at a record high, fueled by the insurgency and corrupt government officials, the U.N. said last month. The country produces nearly all the world’s opium, and the Taliban are believed to share in the profits.
Military operations and militant violence have killed at least 600 Afghan civilians this year.
About 400 villagers blocked a major highway Tuesday to protest the purported killing of two civilians by foreign troops during a search operation in the Zhari district of Kandahar province.
Spokesmen from both NATO and the U.S.-led coalition said they had no reports of any search operations or civilian deaths in Zhari.
Habibullah Jan, a lawmaker from Sanzari village, said NATO troops surrounded the village and killed a man and his son. He warned that if such things keep happening, “people will take up arms against the government and NATO.”
The abducted Red Cross workers had gone to Wardak province to discuss the release of a German man kidnapped in July, said an official who spoke on condition of anonymity because of the situation’s sensitivity.
All four were taken captive Wednesday afternoon. The two foreigners had helped coordinate the release of 19 South Korean captives late last month, the official said.
Meanwhile, two Italian intelligence agents wounded by their Taliban captors during a rescue operation in western Afghanistan have been evacuated for medical treatment in their home country, a NATO spokesman said. One arrived in Rome late Wednesday, and the other was to arrive on Thursday.
The two men had been captured by Taliban militants over the weekend. They were rescued early Monday by Italian commandos and other NATO troops in an ambush of the kidnappers’ vehicles that left eight captors dead.
Both men were wounded, one critically, probably by Taliban gunfire, said Maj. Charles Anthony, spokesman for NATO’s International Security Assistance Force.