The Taliban are gaining strength in parts of Afghanistan, the US military said on Wednesday, after a week of the heaviest fighting in years was reported to have killed about 300 people.
Nearly five years after they were forced from power by US and Afghan forces, the Taliban appear better organizsed and more aggressive than at any time since their ouster in 2001.
Most of those killed in a series of clashes since Wednesday last week were militants but dozens of Afghan police, soldiers and civilians have also been killed, along with four foreign soldiers.
In the latest fighting, US and Afghan government forces killed 24 insurgents in a battle in Uruzgan province in the south on Tuesday.
The Afghan military commander for southern Afghanistan, General Rehmatullah Raufi, said up to 60 rebels had died in the latest fighting.
It was not immediately clear why there was a discrepancy in the numbers, which were impossible to confirm independently because the scene of the fighting was remote and insecure.
The fighting erupted after militants hiding in a mountain compound in a small village in Tirin Kot district fired small-arms, rocket-propelled grenades and mortars at a joint Afghan-coalition patrol late on Tuesday, according to two separate US military statements.
The troops fought back for six hours, forcing the militants to retreat before they tried to bring in reinforcements from two nearby compounds, the statements said.
The forces then called in air support. US bombers and unmanned Predator aircraft, along with French and British fighter jets, dropped bombs and fired rockets at the militants.
Beside the troops and police killed, six Afghan soldiers and three police were wounded, one of the statements said.
"There's no doubt that the Taliban have grown in strength and influence in certain areas in Kandahar, Helmand and in southern Uruzgan," US military spokesman Colonel Tom Collins told a briefing, referring to three southern provinces.
"That's why we're going after them," he said.
The rising tide of violence, the worst since US and Afghan opposition forces routed the Taliban after they refused to hand over Osama bin Laden, comes as thousands of NATO peacekeepers are arriving.
The alliance will take over security duties in the south from US forces in late July.
The commander of US forces in Afghanistan, Lieutenant-General Karl Eikenberry, met Afghan President Hamid Karzai to explain the killing of civilians during an offensive against Taliban insurgents on Monday, the president's office said.
Authorities in Kandahar said 16 civilians were killed in bombing by US-led forces after Taliban took up positions in their homes. Some villagers and human rights workers said the toll was higher.
"The president emphasised that civilians' safety is a top priority for the government," Karzai's office said.
Collins said the US military regretted civilian deaths but the Taliban were to blame by occupying villagers' homes. The US military said its forces had to be able to defend themselves against fire from known enemy positions.