About 50 Afghan soldiers were isolated in Taliban-held territory yesterday after coming under attack in southern Afghanistan, a military commander said.
The US-led coalition, however, only confirmed the deaths of four Afghan soldiers in the encounter in southern Helmand Province.
A 20-vehicle Afghan army convoy came under attack in the province yesterday morning, the commander said on condition of anonymity.
Only six vehicles had managed to escape, leaving the remainder behind with about 50 men. The fate of the men was unknown, he said from the scene.
"We may have suffered heavy casualties. It's a disaster," he said.
The coalition could only confirm the deaths of four Afghan soldiers in the encounter.
"This morning [yesterday] coalition forces and the ANA [Afghan National Army] engaged with enemy fighters in Helmand Province. Four ANA soldiers were killed and 12 injured," coalition spokeswoman Lieutenant Tamara Lawrence said.
The top army commander for southern Afghanistan said earlier that one soldier died and four were wounded in the area late on Friday in fighting in which six Taliban were also killed.
The military unit that was attacked yesterday had been moving away from the area of Friday's clash.
The army had called for coalition air support, said southern area commander General Rahmatullah Raufi. Troop reinforcements were preparing to leave for the area, another official said.
A Taliban spokesman admitted that the movement had lost five fighters and said scores of Afghan soldiers were killed.
The latest clash was not far from a major battle that erupted in Helmand's Musa Qala district on Wednesday.
Sixty "enemy fighters" and 16 police were killed in the battle, the coalition said in a statement on Friday.
The Musa Qala battle was one of several major clashes in Afghanistan over the past few days that have left around 200 Taliban dead.
About 25 troops, police and civilians have also been killed, including a Canadian who became the first Canadian woman to be killed in battle since World War II.
Meanwhile, Afghanistan is on the brink of becoming a narco-state with drug cartels now posing a greater threat to the country's future than Taliban insurgents, NATO's top military commander in Europe said yesterday.
Afghanistan is the world's largest producer of opium, the raw material for heroin. The narcotics trade accounts for about a third of its economy.
In an interview published in the International Herald Tribune, General James Jones said: "Afghanistan is teetering on becoming a narco-state."
"It is not the resurgence of the Taliban but the linkage of the economy to drug production, crime, corruption and black market activities which poses the greatest danger for Afghanistan," he said.
Jones was appointed commander of NATO and the US forces in Europe in 2003.
Afghanistan's opium output last year was about 4,500 tonnes and about 90 percent of the world's heroin comes from Afghanistan. Experts have said the huge trade is feeding an escalating insurgency against foreign troops and Afghanistan's Western-backed government.
NATO is planning expanded operations in Afghanistan in the coming months that will take foreign troop numbers there to the highest level since the Taliban's overthrow in 2001.
Jones acknowledged a surge in Taliban attacks in recent weeks but said the country was "not backsliding into chaos."
He said insurgents were testing NATO in areas where drug cartels, organized crime groups, tribes, and Taliban and al-Qaeda remnants felt threatened by NATO's expansion plans.
"They want to see if NATO is up to the test. The Taliban and al-Qaeda are not stupid people. They want to see what they are up against. We are going into places where the scope for crime and narcotics will be dislodged," said the former US Marine commander.
Jones said NATO had begun cooperating with Iran to try to prevent armed drug convoys from crossing into that country en route to Russia and Europe.
"Iran now sees what we are doing on the Afghan side of the border is beneficial," he said.
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