MONARAI, Afghanistan (Reuters) – NATO and Afghan forces held mopping up operations, hunting Taliban fighters and burying the dead on Friday, after an air and ground offensive routed hundreds of insurgents from a valley near Kandahar city.
The allies mounted the offensive on Wednesday after the Taliban took control of the Arghandab valley, 20 km (12 miles) northwest of Kandahar.
Around 600 militants, including some who had escaped a week ago during a mass jail break from a prison in the city, had taken up positions in a cluster of villages, according to a provincial official and a Taliban spokesman.
On Friday, the governor of Kandahar province took a group of journalists to the battle zone after 800 Afghan troops, backed by hundreds of, mainly Canadian, NATO soldiers had wrested back control of the district.
They saw the havoc wreaked by shelling on the small mud walled forts that are familiar sights in the Pashtun tribal lands of the region.
In the village of Monarai, the corpses of eight fighters lay under the shade of mulberry trees on the banks of a stream, while a dozen more were piled on top of one another a few meters away.
“We would like to ask you to bury them,” Governor Assadullah Khalid told a group of haggard village elders.
Blood-stained sandals and shoes were scattered nearby among broken branches on one scorched patch of earth.
The governor estimated more than 100 Taliban fighters were killed in the onslaught, and said the bodies of many more had been dumped in a ditch elsewhere.
There was no sound of fighting, and few of the several thousand families who had fled earlier this week had begun to return to their homes in a valley known locally for the quality of its grapes, pomegranates and hashish.
Soldiers warned journalists to watch out for land mines planted by the insurgents.
Earlier this week, a Taliban spokesman had said the militants’ aim was to retake the city that was the birthplace of their movement.
A NATO spokesman in Kabul spoke of several skirmishes during the fighting in Arghandab, but no large scale encounters with Taliban forces.
“When Afghan and ISAF units moved into the area, they encountered only minor incidents with insurgents and never met or spotted the large numbers of insurgents as claimed,” Brigadier General Carlos Branco said.
“There were some air attacks too, but not heavy.”
In the past, Taliban fighters have seized control of villages overnight, only to melt away when the NATO and government forces appeared. A gathering of such a large force was atypical of the guerrillas’ tactics.
They have most commonly resorted to suicide attacks and roadside bombs to harry NATO and government forces.
The Taliban’s commando-style raid on Kandahar jail to spring hundreds of captured comrades last week was a shift in tactics that caught the government and NATO by surprise.
While the mopping up continued in Arghandab on Friday, a suicide bomber attacked a foreign military convoy in Helmand, the province to the west of Kandahar, killing a soldier, an Afghan interpreter and five civilians.
The insurgency has gone through its bloodiest phase in the last two years, as the Taliban regrouped after being driven from power by U.S.-led forces in 2001, and mounting casualties have made some NATO member states hesitant to deploy troops.
The United States and NATO have more than 60,000 soldiers in Afghanistan, fighting alongside 150,000 Afghan troops, and there is growing impatience with Pakistan over Taliban fighters using its territory as a safe refuge.