KABUL (Reuters) - Afghan and NATO-led forces killed 18 insurgents overnight as dozens of Taliban prepared to attack the capital of the southern province of Helmand for the second time in three days, police said on Wednesday.
Violence has surged in Afghanistan this year to its highest level since the U.S.-led and Afghan forces toppled the Taliban after the September 11, 2001 attacks. Many in the West fear they are now losing the military campaign and the support of Afghans.
Massed Taliban attacks on major towns are rare, but an attempted assault on a provincial capital only four days after some 65 militants tried to do the same thing is an indication the Islamist movement has no shortage of recruits.
“Dozens of Taliban fighters attacked Lashkar Gah in Helmand. Eighteen insurgents were killed during a four-hour gun battle,” said Helmand police chief Asadullah Sherzad.
“We believe this was the same group of insurgents and militants,” said a spokesman for the British army in Helmand. “Their aims were similar to that of Saturday night,” he said.
Afghan security forces took the primary role in both operations and the latest attack was also thwarted outside the city, the British military spokesman said.
“They were much fewer in numbers and not as well coordinated as on Saturday,” he said.
Elsewhere in Helmand, the provincial governor’s spokesman said some 70 Taliban fighters were killed in an overnight air strike by foreign forces, but NATO said only a small group of Taliban commanders were targeted and killed in the strike.
It was not possible to independently verify any of the casualty figures due to poor security and lack of access to areas where fighting took place.
Britain has some 8,000 troops in Helmand, a mainly desert province which is bisected by a lush strip of land irrigated by the Helmand River and where about half the world’s opium is grown.
British troops have been engaged in almost daily battles with Taliban militants since they moved into the province in 2006, but the capital Lashkar Gah has been relatively quiet.
In another incident, NATO-led and Afghan troops killed four Taliban fighters in the Andar district of Ghazni province on Tuesday, said senior provincial police officer General Naorooz.
Overall levels of violence have surged despite a slight drop in militant activity during Ramadan last month.
The United Nations says more than 3,800 people, a third of them civilians, were killed in the first seven months of this year.
Reporting by Ismail Sameem in Kandahar and Hamid Shalizi in Kabul; Writing by Jonathon Burch; Editing by David Fox