NATO forces say they have killed more than 70 Taleban insurgents during violent clashes in southern Afghanistan. The fighting occurred deep inside the Taleban's traditional stronghold, not far from where the Afghan government recently signed a ceasefire agreement with local tribal leaders. VOA's Benjamin Sand reports from Islamabad.
The ceasefire deal covers the town of Musa Qala and the area immediately surrounding it in the southern province of Helmand. NATO officials say there were reports of stepped-up insurgent activity near the ceasefire area in recent days.
Major Luke Knittig, a NATO spokesman, says a large group of fighters tried to ambush a NATO patrol near the area early Sunday morning, sparking a four-hour gun battle.
"We responded pretty robustly and the ground commander involved with the fighting assessed that he killed 70 to 80 insurgents," he said.
Helicopter gunships and jet fighters provided additional air support during the action. Knittig says there were no NATO casualties.
The fight was the most intense in the region since the Afghan government signed the controversial peace accord with tribal elders in October.
Under that agreement, the elders vowed that Taleban insurgents would leave the area, and insurgent activity there would cease. In exchange, NATO and Afghan troops agreed to leave the area as well.
NATO officials concede that extremists continue to operate inside the area covered by the agreement, but they say so far, no one there has broken the cease-fire. Knittig says Sunday's fighting took place outside the area, and he says the agreement is holding fast and producing tangible results for the community.
"We do have the means to test the Musa Qala agreement," he noted, " and the fact that a mosque is being built and a school and a clinic and that we don't see it being used as a launching pad for attacks tells us that as it stands, the deal's all right."
NATO Officials say they hope local people will ultimately abandon their support for the insurgents completely.
Southern Afghanistan remains one of the Taleban's primary strongholds, and fighting throughout Helmand and several neighboring provinces has surged in the past year.
About 4,000 people have been killed in Afghanistan in the last 12 months, the bloodiest period since 2001, when U.S.-led forces ousted the Taleban regime in a short-lived military campaign.
The region has also seen a massive increase in opium production. According to the United Nations, cultivation in Helmand has jumped more than 100 percent in the past year. Afghanistan as a whole is now estimated to be responsible for 90 percent of the world's heroin.
The United Nations says profits from the illegal drug trade help fund local warlords and Islamist militants, as well as lining the pockets of thousands of corrupt government officials.