Taliban fighters attacked an Afghan-coalition patrol, sparking a battle that killed at least 24 militants and five Afghan forces, officials said yesterday, while the US military acknowledged that insurgents had grown in "strength and influence" in recent weeks.
The clash in mountains of southern Uruzgan Province came after a week of some of the deadliest violence since the Taliban regime's ouster in 2001. As many as 336 people have died, mostly militants, according to Afghan and coalition figures.
Also yesterday, a British military aircraft carrying the British ambassador to Afghanistan caught fire as it landed in southern Helmand Province. Chris Miller, a spokesman for the US-led coalition, said the incident was not the result of militant fire and all on board escaped unhurt.
He said the plane's tires burst when it hit the ground, sending debris into the engine and causing the fire.
The upsurge in violence in the south, a former Taliban heartland, coincides with the deployment of thousands of forces from nations including Britain, Canada and the Netherlands, as NATO prepares to assume command of security operations from the coalition.
The latest fighting happened in the mountains of Uruzgan's Tirin Kot district late on Tuesday. The Afghan military commander for southern Afghanistan, General Rehmatullah Raufi, said the bodies of 60 rebels were recovered, but the coalition said only 24 militants had died.
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 coalition said five Afghan forces were killed and nine were wounded.
It said militants attacked a joint Afghan-coalition patrol. The troops beat back the assault and forced the militants to retreat to mountains, before coalition planes bombed Taliban positions.