KABUL, Afghanistan -- The US military said a series of battles have inflicted heavy losses on Afghan militants, who have intensified attacks since winter snows melted.
In the latest clash, insurgents trying to escape US Marines took refuge in a cave and killed two Americans on Sunday. The five-hour battle in eastern Afghanistan left an estimated 23 rebels dead, the US military said yesterday.
The clash, which also involved American attack planes, began when a Marine unit checked on a tip about insurgents operating in Laghman, an opium-producing area 60 miles east of the capital, Kabul.
Insurgents opened fire with small arms and rocket-propelled grenades and then split into two groups, one of which fled to a village and the other to a cave on a nearby ridge, the statement said.
''US Air Force A-10 aircraft engaged the insurgents in the cave and a squad of Marines went afterwards to assess the situation," it said. ''The two Marines were killed while clearing the cave area."
The statement said two insurgents were confirmed dead and 21 more were thought to have been killed. There was no word on wounded from either side.
The names of the two Marines were withheld pending notification of families.
Their deaths brought to 143 the number of American troops killed in and around Afghanistan since the start of Operation Enduring Freedom in late 2001, according to US Defense Department statistics.
After a winter lull, loyalists to the ousted Taliban regime and other militants opposed to the US-backed government of Afghan President Hamid Karzai have escalated their insurgency with a string of attacks and bombings.
But the rebels have suffered severe casualties when US warplanes have caught large groups on open ground. Last week, battles in two southern provinces reportedly killed 64 rebels, nine Afghan soldiers, and an Afghan police officer.
American commanders assert they are grinding the insurgents down and persuading villagers along the Pakistani border to stop sheltering them.
They also suggest an 18,000-member US-led international force could be trimmed after Sept. 18 parliamentary elections if a government reconciliation plan were to succeed.