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US troops kill 22 militants in Afghanistan

Aid workers leave as violence persists

KABUL -- US troops and helicopter gunships killed 22 militants, including three Arab fighters in southern Afghanistan, the military said yesterday, in the latest bloodshed ahead of historic Afghan elections.

Meanwhile, the United Nations withdrew dozens of staff members from the western city of Herat a day after mobs ransacked its offices. The mob violence occurred after President Hamid Karzai replaced the city's warlord governor. His replacement later ordered a 9 p.m. curfew.

The 12-hour battle in the southern province of Zabul, a hotbed of resistance to Karzai's US-backed government, began late Sunday, the military said.

Spokesman Major Scott Nelson said some 40 militants attacked coalition soldiers on a search operation. The troops called in two Apache helicopters, which opened fire on the fighters.

''Skirmishes continued throughout the night, and the final battle-damage assessment from the incident, from our soldiers on the ground, was 22," Nelson said. Among the dead were three Arabs, the spokesman said. Another Arab was among three people arrested. No coalition forces were hurt, he said.

The US forces seized a global-positioning system, four grenades, two assault rifles, and a video camera with tapes, he said. Nelson declined to give the Arab fighters' nationalities or say what was on the tapes.

Guerrilla violence is surging in the run-up to the Oct. 9 elections, despite the presence of 18,000 coalition forces who have been hunting for terrorist suspects since late 2001.

In another attack Sunday, Nelson said, Taliban gunmen ambushed a coalition patrol near the southern city of Kandahar. American soldiers returned fire without stopping. No casualties were reported.

The Taliban have vowed to sabotage the presidential election, which Karzai is widely expected to win. Twelve elections workers are among the more than 900 people killed in Afghan political violence this year.

In another reminder of the country's instability, weekend rioting left three people dead in Herat and led international aid workers to leave the city yesterday.

The United Nations, whose offices were burned and looted in unrest after the ouster of regional strongman Ismail Khan, said it flew about 40 staff members to the capital.

The UN refugee agency, whose office was looted, said it suspended operations in the west, stranding more than 1,000 returning refugees on the nearby Iranian border.

Dozens of relief workers from other organizations were also evacuating. But Filippo Grandi, deputy head of the world body's Afghan mission, said the move was temporary.

''They were under considerable shock, so we allowed them to come to Kabul just for a few days for rest," he said. Hundreds of Afghan staff members and a handful of expatriates remain.

Two UN workers, three American troops, and three Afghan soldiers were reportedly injured by the crowds, which the US military said threw grenades as well as stones.

Health officials said three Afghan civilians were killed and dozens wounded, many by bullets apparently fired by Afghan forces trying to control the crowds.

The government announced Saturday that Khan was being replaced in a bold move to extend its authority into a wealthy region recently wracked by fighting.

Khan, who has ruled Herat Province like an autocrat since helping US forces oust the Taliban, has long sparred with the central government over millions in customs duties levied at the Iranian frontier. He also clashed with the UN after the world body accused him of shielding his private army from a nationwide disarmament program, and has been accused of repressing political opponents and women's freedoms.

His downfall occurred after his troops were trounced in deadly clashes with those of rival warlords in August. One of his rivals could face criminal charges for his part in the violence, while another has been relieved as governor of a neighboring province.

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