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800 Taliban fight Afghan troops in five-day battle

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Afghanistan's security forcesKandahar: More than 800 Taliban insurgents have launched a major offencive in southern Afghanistan to try to gain territory recently vacated by US troops, officials said today, with 40 civilians killed in five days of fighting.

About 100 Taliban have been killed, according to the interior ministry, in clashes that erupted as Afghanistan wrestled with a political crisis over alleged fraud in the June 14 election to choose a successor to President Hamid Karzai.

The assault highlights the challenges facing Afghan security forces battling the Taliban as US-led NATO forces pull out.

Local officials in Helmand province said that 800 militants were involved in attacks centred on the Sangin district of Helmand province, a hotbed of fighting during the 13-year insurgency.

The last US troops pulled out of Sangin only last month, handing over their remaining bases to Afghan soldiers and police who have now taken on full responsibility for fighting the militants.

“About 800 fighters started to storm four districts of Helmand last Thursday night,” Helmand provincial governor spokesman Omar Zwak told.

“At least 21 Afghan forces have died and close to 40 civilians were killed.”

A government official in Kabul confirmed the figure of 800 Taliban fighters.

Zwak said reinforcements had been sent to repel the attacks in Sangin, Nowzad, Kajaki and Musa Qala districts, where 2,000 families have fled the violence.

The threat of a Taliban revival as NATO combat troops withdraw after more than a decade of war is a major fear for many Afghans, though government and NATO officials insist that the national army and police are increasingly effective.

Today, the interior ministry confirmed the scale of the fighting in Helmand but insisted that the insurgents were being beaten back.

“There was a major attack by the Taliban and their supporters,” ministry spokesman Siddiq Siddiqi told. “We have reports of a lot of enemy attackers over the last few days.

“We are reinforcing Afghan national security forces and have suffered no major loss of territory. About 100 Taliban have been killed so far.”

Siddiqi said that 18 policemen were killed yesterday.

Local officials said the Taliban had launched overnight attacks on police checkpoints, and that power from the Kajaki dam to Lashkar Gah, the capital of Helmand, and to Kandahar city had been cut, causing long outages.

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