WASHINGTON - Two U.S. soldiers were killed and a third was injured yesterday during a fierce 90-minute firefight in a rugged border region of eastern Afghanistan, the latest in a series of mounting Taliban attacks, according to U.S. Central Command.

The Americans were on a combat patrol near Firebase Shkin in a remote area of Paktika province when they encountered what a Centcom spokesman called "former Taliban fighters" who opened fire, mortally wounding the two soldiers.

Coalition commanders dispatched a quick-reaction strike force and two A-10 Thunderbolt II jets to drive off the attackers, and helicopters evacuated the two U.S. soldiers to Bagram Air Base, where they died of their wounds.

The third soldier was treated and stabilized, according to a Centcom official, who said the soldiers' names were being withheld pending notification of their families.

Afghan military commanders said as many as 40 Taliban were killed in the gunbattle. Centcom put the number of anti-coalition dead at four.

A Centcom spokesman said yesterday's attack on the patrol, part of efforts to root out Taliban holdouts in the area, was one among nearly a dozen such incidents during the past week. But the spokesman added that they did not appear to be organized and were the work of "small groups." A special operations soldier was killed in action Aug. 21 near Orgun, also in Paktika province, and another member of the special operations force was killed in Zabul province last week, according to Centcom.

"This is more from us locating them than from them targeting us," spokesman Sgt. Maj. Lewis Matson said. "The incidents have been mainly initiated by the coalition and the Afghan National Army."

The coalition and 1,000 troops from the newly trained army launched Operation Warrior Sweep in late July with a mission "to kill, capture and deny sanctuary to anti-coalition fighters and to disrupt anti-coalition activity" in targeted border regions, military commanders said at the time.

Dozens of Taliban fighters have been killed and others detained during the operation, which also has netted an array of weaponry from caves and other Taliban caches, according to Centcom.

"There's no question that they've been denied sanctuary," Matson said. "That's really the key element here. They don't have the ability to assemble en masse. ... It's fire an RPG and run."

U.S. military and administration officials in Washington have downplayed recent reports from the region that the Taliban is regrouping and staging increasingly bold and deadly attacks on the U.S.-led coalition.

Air Force Lt. Gen. Norton A. Schwartz, the operations director for the Joint Chiefs of Staff, told reporters last month that the coalition had the armed resistance on the run in Afghanistan.

"We see small elements of adversary units - in fact, 'unit' is too big - small groups of people that operate in the border area," Schwartz said, stressing that Warrior Sweep was designed to target those groups. "And we will eliminate those elements while we continue to enable the Afghan government and the Afghan National Army to assume that role on their own behalf."

Asked how many Taliban and al-Qaida fighters remained, Schwartz said: "I really don't have a good estimate, but I can tell you, though, it is not a substantial number."

Last week, Deputy Secretary of State Richard L. Armitage also credited the Warrior Sweep operation for "two great battles against the Taliban" that left 35 of their fighters dead.

He added that deploying the new Afghan army, numbering about 5,300, would be key to neutralizing the threat to U.S. and coalition forces and bringing long-term stability to the country.

"We're training Afghan servicemen. We're training Afghan policemen," Armitage said. "At some point in time, they will lead, and Osama bin Laden shooting them will not be a threat to Afghanistan."

Since the start of the U.S.-led combat operations against the Taliban and al-Qaida in Afghanistan, 35 coalition troops have been killed in action and 34 more have died from accidents and other incidents the Pentagon calls "non-hostile" acts. The majority of the dead are Americans, according to Matson.

There are about 10,000 U.S. forces in Afghanistan in a coalition force of about 12,500.

The Los Angeles Times is a Tribune Publishing newspaper.