Four US soldiers were killed in action in southern Afghanistan on Saturday, the latest sign of a growing militant insurgency that threatens to disrupt landmark elections due in September.
In one of the worst losses for US forces since the fall of the Taliban late in 2001, four service members assigned to a special forces unit were killed in the southern province of Zabul, scene of regular guerrilla attacks in recent months.
More than 700 people have died in violence since August, most of it blamed on Taliban and al-Qaeda fighters who have declared a jihad, or holy war, against foreign and Afghan troops as well as aid organizations.
The acceleration in attacks on US and Afghan forces in the last two months is particularly worrying as the country heads toward its first-ever free vote, which the West hopes will give legitimacy to a government seen by many as a US puppet.
"Four US service members assigned to the Combined Joint Special Operations Task Force, Afghanistan were killed in action today here in southern Afghanistan," said a brief statement from the US military.
"Names will not be released until notification of next of kin is complete," the statement said.
The four deaths bring to 90 the number of US fatalities in Afghanistan, 56 of them in combat.
A spokeswoman said there were no more details available.
In what has been a bloody week for Afghanistan, seven Afghan soldiers and four suspected Taliban fighters died in clashes in the southern province of Helmand on Saturday and two US soldiers were wounded near the Pakistani border on Thursday.
US aircraft supporting a patrol that came under fire on Tuesday in the southern province of Kandahar pounded Taliban positions, killing at least two militants, and a Norwegian peacekeeper was killed in a grenade attack in Kabul a week ago.
On Saturday, the US military announced plans to deploy the 10,000-strong Afghan National Army (ANA) across the country to secure polling and voter registration, which has lagged behind expectations partly because of security fears.
They will work alongside 20,000 US-led soldiers, 6,500 international peacekeepers restricted largely to Kabul and a growing police force, said Major-General Craig Weston.
He added that the fledgling ANA would set up four permanent garrisons in the north, south, east and west of the country to help consolidate Afghan President Hamid Karzai's control outside the capital.
Karzai and his backers in Washington have been undermined both by a militant rebellion and by regional commanders officially loyal to him but who have resisted a key nationwide disarmament program and clashed with government militia.
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