'31 militants killed' in Afghan fight

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The Independent Online

Afghan police and coalition forces killed 31 militants in a Taliban-controlled region of the country's opium poppy-growing belt, the second large battle in the Afghan south in two days, officials said today.

The battle in three villages in the Kajaki region of Helmand province yesterday also wounded 20 militants, the Interior Ministry said.

Kajaki is the site of a US-funded dam that provides hydroelectric power to much of southern Afghanistan. While a small unit of British troops protects and controls the dam, those forces are surrounded by hostile militants on all sides.

The Afghan government admits it has little control in that region of Helmand. President Barack Obama is sending 21,000 additional U.S. troops to Afghanistan this year, and many thousands are expected to deploy to Helmand to aid the British and other international forces who have faced pitched battles in the dangerous province.

Helmand is the world's largest opium poppy-growing region, and UN officials estimate that the Taliban and other drug lords derive up to $500 million a year from the illegal trade.

News of the battle in Kajaki came one day after a police chief in Uruzgan province said Afghan and foreign troops killed 30 Taliban fighters in his province.

Violence in Afghanistan is expected to surge this year as the new US troops arrive. Militant attacks have grown increasingly deadly the last three years, and insurgents now control wide swaths of countryside where Afghan and international forces don't have enough manpower to maintain a permanent presence.