Hundreds of Taliban-led militants stormed two remote mountain outposts in eastern Afghanistan on Saturday, suffering heavy casualties but killing eight US soldiers in their deadliest raid for over a year.
Two Afghan soldiers were also killed amid fierce fighting, which lasted all day and was punctuated by strikes from planes and Apache gunships. Separately a US soldier died from wounds suffered from a bomb.
The insurgents attacked at first light on Saturday morning, streaming out of a mosque on one side of a hill and a village on the other towards the US and Afghan positions in between.
After overrunning a district police station and capturing a number of Afghan police, they turned their attention to the US outpost on higher ground.
"We threw everything we could at them," a spokeswoman for the US military said. "The folks in that outpost were under fire and we knew there was enough of an insurgent presence that justified [air support]."
Nato said it had inflicted heavy losses on the attackers, while the Taliban claimed they had killed 30 foreign and Afghan soldiers.
Their spokesman, Zabiullah Mujahed, said the attacking force had included suicide bombers and that after overrunning the police station they had taken the district police chief, an intelligence official, and 35 police and soldiers hostage.
A Taliban council would decide their fate, he said.
"This was a complex attack in a difficult area," Colonel Randy George, the US commander in the area, said. It was the deadliest single incident for foreign forces since 10 French troops were killed in an ambush in August 2008.
The battle took place in Kamdesh district in Nuristan province. Stone houses cling to steep slopes, there are few roads, dirt or paved, and any communication with the outside world takes place by handheld radio.
The forbidding terrain is a haven for al-Qaeda and Taliban fighters and insurgents have crossed the border into Pakistan for decades. The relationship between US forces and the local population is said to be one of mutual distrust. There have been civilian casualties and a string of US setbacks, including the loss of Chinook helicopter carrying 16 Navy Seals in 2005.
The US military said the latest attack would not affect its plans to withdraw from the area despite pleas from the provincial governor that there were already too few troops there. General Stanley McChrystal wants his forces to pull back from the mountains to concentrate on protecting more heavily-populated areas.
"We must redefine the fight," General McChrystal said last week. The new objective is to protect the population and reduce insurgent influence, abandoning efforts to defend remote locations, he said. His comments come as the Obama administration is assessing its commitment to Afghanistan. General McChrystal has requested tens of thousands of extra troops, warning that the eight-year war will probably be lost without them. Despite having over 100,000 troops in the country, the coalition is battling a growing insurgency.