Senior officials say a series of major clashes in southern Afghanistan may be linked to the region's powerful drug cartels. Two days of violence and pitched battles have left at more than 30 people dead, most of them militants.
Afghan officials say the fighting has largely subsided Sunday, but government forces are combing the area looking for suspected insurgents.
A roadside bomb in Kandahar killed six policemen late Saturday. The attack is the latest in a string of bloody assaults that seem to be spreading across much of southern Afghanistan. It was blamed on supporters of the Taleban, a hard-line Islamic group that controlled Afghanistan until it was ousted in 2001.
Interior Ministry spokesman Yousuf Stanezai says the violence is fueled, at least in part, by a growing coalition of Taleban insurgents and local drug lords.
"The Taleban fighters and the drug traffickers jointly want to disrupt the security situation because police have put pressure on drug smuggling," he said. "The circle for drug smuggling and terrorist activities has become smaller."
He says both groups rely on the same underground networks to transport drugs, weapons and personnel. Afghanistan is a leading producer of illegal opium, which is used to make the addictive drug heroin.
The fighting erupted Friday when militants ambushed a police convoy in Helmand province, long considered a hotbed for insurgent activity.
As government forces regrouped, U.S.-led coalition airplanes bombed suspected Taleban targets in the area.
Speaking Saturday, U.S. military spokesman Lieutenant Mike Cody described the coalition involvement.
"Coalition forces provided close air support and were involved on the ground," said Lieutenant Cody. "As of yesterday we have no coalition casualties or damages."
Just a few hours after the initial attack, more than 200 insurgents attacked government offices in the region, killing a district chief and several policemen.
The violence forced hundreds of terrified residents from their homes Saturday as government troops and suspected Taleban rebels traded fire.
Reinforcements have arrived from the capital and security across the volatile southern provinces has been sharply increased.
Officials say both Helmand and Kandahar provinces are centers for drug trafficking and the Taleban insurgency.
NATO peacekeepers will deploy to the region later this year with nearly double their existing troop strength. Around 18,000 British, Canadian and Dutch forces will complement U.S. troops already in the area.