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Intense battle kills 47 in Afghanistan

US-backed forces target the Taliban

SARTAK, Afghanistan -- Security forces backed by helicopters of the US-led coalition attacked a suspected Taliban hide-out in southeastern Afghanistan, sparking an intense battle that killed 41 rebels and six police officers, a senior official said yesterday.

The fighting was some of the heaviest reported since the Taliban threatened to intensify attacks as the warmer weather melts snow on mountain passes used by the militants.

Villagers said they appealed in vain for 50 to 60 militants to leave the area days before the clashes erupted Friday in Kandahar Province, a former Taliban stronghold near the border with Pakistan.

''Our elders had asked [the Taliban] to go away because we knew that one day American helicopters will come and drop bombs," Faiz Ullah said from Sartak, a village surrounded by blooming opium poppy fields and the site of the heaviest fighting.

The provincial governor, Asadullah Khalid, said the assault was based on intelligence that the militants were preparing to attack the regional capital of Kandahar.

While the firing had died down yesterday and the situation appeared under control, security forces were still searching for some Taliban who had fled, he said.

''We saw the 41 bodies of Taliban at the end of the fighting, but we collected only 11," Khalid said, refusing to elaborate on why the other bodies were not retrieved. He also said six police officers were killed.

A US military spokesman, Lieutenant Mike Cody, said the coalition provided AH-64 Apache helicopters, which fired rockets in support of Afghan ground forces, but he declined to comment on casualties, saying it was primarily an Afghan operation.

Ullah said Afghan police surrounded Sartak, about 25 miles southwest of Kandahar, on Friday morning and asked villagers to evacuate, but some were still inside their homes when the fighting broke out.

The 55-year-old villager saw only two militants and four Afghan policemen killed in Sartak, but said other Taliban may have been killed in nearby villages.

No security forces could be seen in the area yesterday, despite official assertions that the hunt for Taliban fighters was continuing.

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