Taliban militants fired rockets and mortars at a US base in eastern Afghanistan on Saturday, killing two US troops in a fierce battle as thousands of Marines in the south continued with their massive anti-Taliban push.
The multi-pronged attack in eastern Paktika Province — where a US soldier was captured this week — included a truck bombing near the camp’s gates.
The battle ended only after US forces called in air strikes on militants.
The battle near the Pakistan border is hundreds of kilometers from the massive Marine assault in southern Helmand Province. It underscores the militants’ ability to inflict casualties on the over-stretched US forces as they widen their battle against the Taliban, who have made a violent comeback following their initial defeat in the US-led 2001 invasion.
Responding to the deteriorating security situation, US President Barack Obama’s administration has ordered 21,000 additional troops to Afghanistan and expects the total number of US forces there to reach 68,000 by the end of the year. That is double the number of troops in Afghanistan last year, but still half as many as are now in Iraq.
As part of the new strategy, 4,000 Marines poured into volatile Helmand Province on Thursday in the biggest US military operation in Afghanistan since 2001, trying to cut insurgent supply lines and win over local elders.
More than 30 insurgents were killed in the battle in Zerok district of Paktika Province on Saturday, said Hamidullah Zawak, the provincial governor’s spokesman.
Seven American and two Afghan troops were wounded, a US military spokesman said.
Attack helicopters, air strikes and fire from US troops killed at least 10 militants, a statement from the NATO-led force under which the US troops are fighting said.
Troops detained one militant, it said.
The discrepancy in the militant death tolls could not immediately be reconciled.
During the battle, an insurgent drove a truck filled with explosives and gravel toward the gates of the US base, Zawak said.
When the driver did not heed warnings to stop, troops opened fire on the truck, which exploded, he said.
The blast happened as rocket and mortar fire peppered the base, killing two US troops and wounding seven others, said Specialist April Campbell, a US military spokeswoman.
The clash lasted for two hours before US-called air strikes ended the fight, Zawak said.
Two Afghan soldiers were also wounded. The base housed both US and Afghan soldiers.
Zabiullah Mujaheed, a Taliban spokesman, claimed responsibility for the attack. After the blast, some 100 Taliban fighters fired at coalition troops for several hours, briefly taking over two of their checkpoints, Mujaheed said.
Campbell denied the Taliban ever took over any checkpoints.
Zawak said that 32 insurgents were killed in the air strikes and that authorities have already recovered 16 bodies. Mujaheed said five insurgents were killed and three were wounded.
It is impossible to independently verify Zawak’s and Mujaheed’s claims because the base is in a remote area.
In southern Afghanistan, meanwhile, a roadside bomb killed seven policemen in Kandahar Province on Saturday, the Interior Ministry statement said.
Another two Afghan soldiers died in a separate blast in Helmand Province’s Musa Qala district also on Saturday, the Defense Ministry said.