MANARA, Afghanistan - With the battle in Arghandab valley apparently over, grim signs remained yesterday of the battle that government and NATO troops waged against Taliban militants who had crept within range of Afghanistan's second-largest city.
In the village of Manara, there were 19 bodies. Some were piled in a mud-brick storehouse, which was missing its roof. Others lay in an alleyway beside a tree-shaded stream.
Afghan and French soldiers pointed to a 3-foot-deep crater in a nearby field and to broken and scorched trees as evidence of an air strike.
As villagers rushed home to see whether their livestock had died in the heat, the fighting was over but not the hazards. Soldiers placed red signs warning of bombs planted alongside the road.
Meanwhile, the grinding violence that has plagued the country for much of the past three decades continued elsewhere in Afghanistan yesterday, with suicide attacks and a roadside bomb killing five civilians and two members of the US-led coalition.
The advance of up to 400 militants on Arghandab early this week raised particular alarm, because it is considered a potential springboard for attacks on Kandahar, which was the Taliban's capital until US bombs drove the Islamic militia from power in late 2001.
Hundreds of government and NATO troops launched their counterstrike Wednesday, and two days later the provincial governor escorted reporters through army checkpoints on the 10-mile route from Kandahar to witness the aftermath.
Brigadier General Carlos Branco, a NATO spokesman, said the fighting in Arghandab was over by early Thursday. He said there had been only small ground skirmishes, though an alliance helicopter had returned fire against gunmen in one incident and warplanes carried out very limited air strikes.
Branco said the lone reported civilian casualty and the deployment of 1,100 Afghan troops within 24 hours were "very important" positives from the operation.
On Thursday, NATO declared Arghandab safe enough for some 700 families who had fled the fighting to return.
The Afghan Defense Ministry said 56 militants were killed in all. Two Afghan troops also died. Governor Asadullah Khalid said that militants were killed in about 10 locations, and that the death toll was more than 100.
Khalid said villagers reported some militants spoke the Pashto dialect of tribes from across the border in Pakistan, who are suspected of harboring Afghan insurgents as well as Al Qaeda leaders and sending volunteers of their own.
"We want to tell the Taliban, especially the Pakistani Taliban, that if they come again they will get the same treatment," he said.
NATO sent 600 reinforcements to back government troops confronting the militants, who Afghan officials said numbered some 400 and had seized 10 villages.
The alliance has played down the threat to Kandahar amid concern that the Afghan public, already dismayed over a mass Taliban jailbreak in Kandahar last week, would further lose faith in the central government. Western nations have also urged President Hamid Karzai's administration to get tougher on the corruption and drug trafficking undermining effort to stabilize the country.
"We understand people were frightened after the jailbreak," Branco said.
Din Mohammed, a farmer returning to Manara with 12 relatives, said Taliban fighters had been bent on combat.
"They said they wanted to fight the Afghan and foreign forces. I asked them what should I do, but they said they didn't care, so I left everything, my land, my possessions, my animals," he said.