Afghan and NATO troops fought to within a mile (two kilometres) Monday of the southern town of Musa Qala in a major offensive against Taliban insurgents holed up inside, defence officials said.
Some of the thousands of soldiers involved in the operation launched Friday were closing in from the north, the Afghan defence force said.
A second NATO soldier taking part in the operation was killed and another injured Sunday when their vehicle struck a landmine, the International Security Assistance Force (ISAF) said.
The 38-nation alliance force did not give their nationalities but Brigadier General Carlos Branco, a spokesman, said they were not from Britain, which is playing a key role as ISAF’s lead nation in Helmand province.
A British soldier had become the first international casualty when he died in a mine blast on Saturday.
ISAF said that its soldiers were moving cautiously because of the threat of booby-trap bombs planted by the militants.
The Afghan defence ministry said Saturday a dozen Taliban and two civilians had also been killed, and said Sunday there had been no change in the toll.
The Taliban over-ran Musa Qala in early February, breaking a controversial deal in which British forces pulled out on the request of elders who said they would handle security after months of intense fighting.
British Defence Secretary Des Browne was in Kabul Sunday for talks with his Afghan counterpart about the push for Musa Qala, the Afghan ministry said.
“This is an important operation, but the most important thing about it is that Afghan forces are leading,” Browne said in a separate statement released from London.
“They are doing so with the assistance of international forces, including British forces. The Afghan government has long said that it would retake Musa Qala from the scourge of the Taliban when the time is right. The time is now right.”
ISAF and a separate US-led coalition are helping to build up the Afghan security forces, which were in tatters when the Taliban government fell in 2001, so they can take charge of the country’s fragile security.
Musa Qala has become a base for the Taliban, who were ejected from power in a US-led operation for harbouring Al-Qaeda leaders blamed for the devastating September 11 attacks that year on the United States.
The Taliban has since regrouped and is waging a spiralling insurgency that this year alone has left around 6,000 people dead.
The attack on Musa Qala involves thousands of Afghan army and ISAF troops, along with about 200-300 US soldiers from the US-led coalition.
A British military spokesman in Helmand, Lieutenant Colonel Richard Eaton, said the operation would continue until the “door to Musa Qala was kicked in. And once the door is kicked in, the Afghan army will enter.”
The Afghan defence ministry warned the rebels to lay down their weapons “or face waves of attacks.” Two Taliban commanders in the area had been captured, it said.
Another Taliban commander, Abdul Satar, said its leaders had left after the operation was launched. “But our mujahedin (fighters) are resisting,” he said.
A separate Taliban leader has claimed there are up to 2,000 rebel fighters in the town but this could not be independently verified.
Clashes also erupted early Sunday outside the town, a resident who gave his name as Mahmood told AFP by telephone. “The Taliban resisted, and there is no fighting at this time,” he said.