KABUL, Afghanistan -- US-led troops surprised eight enemy fighters in a cave complex in southeastern Afghanistan, prompting a gun battle in which three militiamen were killed and five others were wounded, the US military said yesterday.
The fighting was the first reported by the US military since the March 7 start of a new effort to crack down on insurgents and terror leaders, including Osama bin Laden and Taliban chief Mullah Mohammed Omar.
The Taliban and their allies appear to have launched their own offensive along the instable Afghan-Pakistan frontier, killing an Afghan soldier at a checkpoint in the latest attack.
The gun battle occurred Saturday morning as dozens of troops, including special forces, searched caves southwest of Qalat, the capital of Zabul Province, 240 miles southwest of Kabul, a spokesman, Lieutenant Colonel Bryan Hilferty, said. Hilferty said the coalition force was unharmed.
Also Saturday, coalition troops detained five militiamen in the caves and found "anticoalition propaganda," Hilferty said. He gave no details, and said eight more suspects were detained in the same area Sunday. Zabul is one of the provinces along the rugged Pakistani border where Taliban guerrillas are believed to have taken refuge after the ouster of the hard-line Islamic regime in late 2001.
The military announced a new operation Saturday called Mountain Storm, a renewed effort to crush militants and capture their leaders, with the aim of making the region safe for reconstruction and summer elections, as well as capturing bin Laden and others.
Commanders say they are working in a "hammer and anvil" approach with Pakistani troops on the other side of the frontier to pin down guerrillas using the mountains as a base.
Pakistan's president, General Pervez Musharraf, said yesterday that there were 500 to 600 suspected foreign terrorists living in the semiautonomous tribal areas along the border, and vowed to drive them out.
More than 160 people have died in violence this year in Afghanistan, including aid workers and government employees, as well as Afghan and foreign troops.
Yesterday, an Afghan soldier was killed and another injured when four people opened fire from a vehicle at a checkpoint near Maywand, 45 miles west of Kandahar, an Afghan military commander said.
Hilferty said two US airmen were injured, one seriously, when a mine exploded Saturday at Bagram air base, north of Kabul. "We believe it was just an old one left over from the wars here," he said.