KABUL, Afghanistan (AP) _ U.S.-led forces backed by warplanes killed 17 Taliban in a fierce battle in the southern Afghan heartland of the former ruling militia, the American military confirmed Friday. Three Marines were slightly wounded.
Afghan officials earlier said 13 Taliban were killed and eight were wounded and captured in the fighting that began late Wednesday in the mountains of Kandahar province and ended Thursday.
Military spokeswoman Master Sgt. Cindy Beam confirmed that 17 enemy combatants were killed and three U.S. Marines were slightly wounded in the joint operation and that U.S. warplanes joined the fray. She gave no other details.
Khalid Pashtun, spokesman for the Kandahar provincial government, told The Associated Press on Thursday that some 300 Afghan troops and a smaller number of Americans skirmished with gunmen in Kandahar's Miana Shien district, some 150 miles southwest of the capital, Kabul.
The clash appeared to be the most deadly since fighting in late August and early September in the mountains of neighboring Zabul province, in which more than 100 Taliban are believed to have been killed.
A force of 2,000 Marines recently was deployed in southern Afghanistan to step up the hunt for al-Qaida and Taliban holdouts. Some 20,000 U.S. forces _ up from 11,000 at the start of the year _ are trying to secure volatile areas in the south and east ahead of crucial general elections scheduled for September.
Militants also have changed tactics, operating in smaller groups that have killed scores of aid workers and government officials as well as Afghan and foreign troops, casting serious doubt over U.S. promises they can crush the insurgency this year.
In a worrying development possibly signaling that insurgents are widening their field of operations, five workers for the Nobel Peace Prize-winning relief group Medecins Sans Frontieres were gunned down in northwestern Afghanistan on Wednesday. The victims included three foreigners.
A purported Taliban spokesman claimed responsibility for the assault, the deadliest on international aid workers since U.S.-backed forces ousted the fundamentalist regime in late 2001.
At least 33 aid workers, mostly Afghans, have been killed since March 2003 _ but mostly in the south and east where the rebels are most active.
Medecins Sans Frontieres, or Doctors Without Borders, which has nearly 1,500 staff in Afghanistan, subsequently suspended its operations across the country.
Authorities in Badghis province said the suspension had an immediate effect, closing several clinics run by the group to the detriment of hundreds of people in the impoverished region.
``It's a very poor and remote province,'' said Amir Shah Naibzada, the provincial chief of police. ``This has had a big impact on health work.''
He blamed the attack on the Taliban, saying there were no other armed factions in the province who could be responsible.
Poor security also is hurting efforts to register the estimated 10 million Afghan voters before September's elections. The process is lagging in volatile southern and eastern provinces and was suspended in Badghis after Wednesday's attack.
President Hamid Karzai on Thursday played down security fears and insisted the election would go ahead, but he conceded that the number of registered voters could be considerably less than originally hoped.