Afghan battle ends with death of 40 guerrillas

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The Independent Online

About 40 guerrillas opposed to Afghanistan's US-backed transitional government were killed yesterday in one of their biggest battles with pro-government forces since the Americans toppled the Taliban in late 2001.

The seven-hour fight, in which at least six Afghan pro-government fighters were also killed, underscored the country's instability. It came as interim President Hamid Karzai held talks with Tony Blair in London yesterday to lobby for more support.

One year after the transitional government was confirmed by a national assembly, Mr Karzai has yet to establish control over much of the country, and faces persistent opposition designed to undermine reconstruction efforts.

There are regular guerrilla attacks against the 9,000 US troops in Afghanistan, and on members of the fledgling national army. International aid workers have also become targets in recent weeks.

The battle happened in the Loi Karez area of southern Afghanistan, about 20 miles from Spin Boldak close to the border with western Pakistan. The area is a hotbed of anti-government and anti-American sentiment: guerrillas have mounted numerous raids despite several big military assaults against them.

Reports from the region quoted Afghan officials describing the 40 dead fighters as members of the Taliban. However, the guerrillas in the area generally appear to comprise a mixture of Islamist militants, ranging from Taliban and al-Qa'ida followers to supporters of the former prime minister, Gulbuddin Hekmatyar. A senior government official in Spin Boldak said pro-government troops were deployed after the guerrillas attacked the district commissioner's office in Loi Karez. "We surrounded an entire group of Taliban and killed about 40 of them after heavy fighting," he said.

Khalid Pashtun, spokesman for the provincial governor, said the fighters were killed when government forces attacked a walled compound. "This is the first time so many [Taliban] have been killed in an operation since their fall," he said.

The victory is not enough to offset the problems facing the Karzai administration. There is widespread disillusionment among Afghans over the lack of improvement to living conditions, the absence of security, and the slow progress in rebuilding the infrastructure.

Warlordscontinue to undermine the administration's hold on Afghanistan. This week the government scored a success when Ismail Khan, the governor of the western province of Herat, handed over $20m (£12m) in customs revenue. But such breakthroughs have been rare.