KABUL, Afghanistan (AP) _ NATO forces killed more than 60 suspected insurgents the last several days in an increasingly volatile southern Afghan province while suffering no casualties, the military alliance said Sunday.
Afghanistan's Ministry of Defense said 40 Taliban fighters were killed by NATO airstrikes that ``completely destroyed'' a militant base in the district of Grishk on Saturday. Maj. Luke Knittig, a NATO spokesman, said the alliance also estimated about 40 fighters were killed.
A NATO helicopter, meanwhile, fired on about 20 insurgents attacking a NATO patrol in neighboring Naw Zad district Friday, killing 15 of the rebels, the alliance said.
In a third incident, an attack helicopter fired on a group of insurgents who shot at a support helicopter Thursday, killing eight of the militants in nearby Sangin district, the statement said.
NATO troops, mostly from Canada and Britain, moved into southern Afghanistan earlier this summer, taking over from a U.S.-led force in a region that in recent months has seen some of the fiercest fighting since the Taliban regime was defeated in late 2001.
British Prime Minister Tony Blair, whose country has about 5,000 soldiers in southern Helmand province, said Sunday that NATO's battle with Afghan insurgents has been more difficult than anticipated but must continue.
``I think the particular mission was tougher than anyone expected. But I'm not surprised it was tough,'' Blair said in an interview with the British Broadcasting Corp.
He said the Taliban and al-Qaida are trying hard to gain control in Afghanistan's south and ``it's essential for us to keep them out.''
Blair's government has had to cope with charges by middle-ranking officers in Afghanistan that ground troops have not received adequate air support and other backing.
Adm. Edmund P. Giambastiani Jr., vice chairman of the U.S. Joint Chiefs of Staff, said during a visit to Afghanistan earlier this month that the U.S. military is better able to detect roadside bombs before they detonate thanks in part to the creation of an anti-explosives team.
``Now we must work harder every day toward reducing our numbers of causalities from these horrible attacks,'' said Giambastiani, according to statements released Sunday by the U.S. military.
Taliban fighters have increasingly used suicide and roadside bombs to attack Western troops and Afghan civilians.
The anti-explosives team focuses on trends, techniques, tactics and procedures used in developing the devices and the information is passed on to troops in the field, the statement said.
Giambastiani said the Navy and Air Force are sending electronic warfare officers to Afghanistan and Iraq to work on counter-explosives measures. He said the military planned to purchase route-clearing equipment for use in both Iraq and Afghanistan.
NATO has about 20,000 soldiers in Afghanistan, while the United States has an additional 21,000, mostly in the eastern part of the country along the border with Pakistan.