U.S. jets kill at least 14 Taliban in Afghanistan offensive

KABUL, Afghanistan - U.S. jets pounded a Taliban mountain hide-out yesterday, killing at least 14 insurgents in the deadliest air assault since rebels launched a series of strikes against Afghan government targets, U.S. and Afghan officials said.

Sweeping through the rugged mountains of southeastern Afghanistan, scores of Afghan militia and U.S. Special Forces soldiers hunted down suspected Taliban fighters who in recent weeks have been attacking police officials and government convoys.

The Taliban violence has killed dozens of people and cast a shadow over American-led efforts to rebuild the battered country. As part of the operation, about 100 suspected guerrillas have been arrested in the past few days, Afghan officials said.

Yesterday's attack was carried out jointly by Afghan provincial militia forces and U.S. Special Forces soldiers, as well as A-10 ground attack jets, F-16 fighter bombers and AV-8B Harrier attack jets, said Army Lt. Col. Jim Cassella, a Pentagon spokesman.

In the campaign, dubbed Operation Warrior Sweep, fighter jets provided air support for ground troops and blasted the mountain region that runs between Kandahar and Zabul provinces, said Col. Rodney Davis, spokesman for the U.S. military at coalition headquarters at Bagram Air Base, north of Kabul.

Davis said 14 "enemy" fighters were killed. Juma Khan, a district police chief, put the death toll at 16. Ahmad Khan, spokesman for the provincial governor, claimed that at least 50 died, but there was no way to independently confirm the varying reports.

There were no reported coalition casualties in the operation, which was continuing, Davis said.

Afghan officials said the U.S. jets destroyed the Taliban camp, located in the Dai Chupan district of southeastern Zabul province.

A Taliban spokesman, Mohammed Hanif, said by satellite telephone that only civilians were killed in two offensives by Afghan government troops, and that the Taliban contingent had fled.

"It was a massive force of the government who wanted to kill and arrest the Taliban, but they were not successful," Hanif said, adding that the Taliban soldiers were led by Amir Khan Haqqani.

The bombing yesterday was the latest of the periodic airstrikes that U.S. forces continue to conduct in Afghanistan. About a week ago, Harriers and A-10s were sent on a bombing run along the Pakistani border.

The recent anti-government assaults, mostly in the south and east of Afghanistan but also in some central regions, suggest that the Taliban are regrouping after the harsh Islamic regime was toppled by U.S.-led forces in late 2001.

There have been reports that the Taliban's leader, Mullah Mohammed Omar, has appointed military commanders to areas of control.

Afghan presidential spokesman Jawad Luddin said the guerrilla attacks were an attempt to undermine Afghan President Hamid Karzai.

He said the violence is localized in areas "where the terrorists find a soft space to operate," and contended that the fighters are linked to terrorist cells outside the country - an apparent reference to neighboring Pakistan. The area where the raids took place is about 90 miles from the Pakistani border.

In separate operations, Afghan and U.S. forces, backed by helicopter gunships and fighter jets, apparently arrested about 100 people in recent days, said Khan Sayed, a spokesman for the provincial police chief.

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