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Troops have Taliban in sights

As villagers flee, militants are said to be surrounded

ARGHANDAB, Afghanistan - Afghan civilians piled belongings onto trucks yesterday and fled two villages infiltrated by hundreds of Taliban militants. US, Canadian, and Afghan troops had about 250 of the insurgents surrounded.

The provincial police chief said the troops killed 50 militants in three days of fighting near the villages 15 miles north of Kandahar, Afghanistan's second-largest city. Three policemen and one Afghan soldier also died.

"The people are fleeing because the Taliban are taking over civilian homes," said the chief, Sayed Agha Saqib. "There have been no airstrikes. We are trying our best to attack those areas where there are no civilians, only Taliban."

Saqib said 250 militants were surrounded, and 16 suspected Taliban have been arrested.

The fighters moved into the Arghandab district of Kandahar province this week, about two weeks after the death of a tribal leader, Mullah Naqib, who had kept Taliban fighters out of his region. President Hamid Karzai traveled to Kandahar for Naqib's funeral.

"He was a good influence for his tribe. He was supporting the government," Saqib said of Naqib. "After he died the Taliban were thinking they would go to Arghandab and cause trouble for Kandahar city. But now they're surrounded and they're in big trouble."

The gathering of fighters on the doorstep of Kandahar - the Taliban's former power base - is reminiscent of last year's battle in neighboring Panjwayi district, one of the biggest fights in Afghanistan since the 2001 US-led invasion.

NATO officials have said hundreds of Taliban tried to overrun Kandahar last year. But Saqib said he did not believe the militants occupying the villages of Chaharqulba and Sayedan would attempt a run on Afghanistan's main southern city.

"We are capturing and killing them and I don't think it will cause any problem for Kandahar," he said.

US Humvees and Canadian jeeps crossed Arghandab's countryside on patrols yesterday alongside hundreds of Afghans fleeing the area in the middle of harvest season, leaving their pomegranate crop at prime picking time.

Karimullah Khan piled his three children into the front seat of a pickup truck and put three female relatives in the back beside household goods and clothes. He was driving to Kandahar city to stay with relatives, he said.

"The Taliban came into our village and they told us to leave," Khan said. "We just packed up our necessities and left. Our pomegranate orchard and home we left behind."

More than 5,600 people have died this year in insurgency-related violence.

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