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Afghans and US hit militants, kill dozens

KABUL, Afghanistan -- In one of the bloodiest clashes since the fall of the Taliban, Afghan troops backed by US warplanes killed as many as 70 militants in a daylong battle near the Pakistani border, military officials said yesterday.

An Afghan commander said government forces heard militant radio messages in Arabic and the Chechen language, suggesting Al Qaeda fighters were involved.

"We could hear the enemy," said General Nawab, an Afghan commander who uses one name. "I'm sure there were foreigners involved."

Only two Afghan soldiers were reported killed in the fighting, an indication of the militants' vulnerability to American air power.

The battle began at about 2 a.m. Monday, when dozens of militants armed with rockets, mortars, and machine guns hit a border post in Khost province, a former Al Qaeda stronghold 120 miles south of the capital, Kabul.

The US military said it sent a B-1 bomber, A-10 ground-attack aircraft, and helicopter gunships and flew in Afghan reinforcements, eventually forcing the assailants to flee "in panic."

US spokesman Major Rick Peat said pilots reported seeing 40 to 50 bodies on the battlefield near the Pakistani border.

Nawab put the rebel toll as high as 70, saying the militants had dragged away many dead and wounded as they retreated into Pakistan. Afghan forces recovered only 10 bodies, he said.

The US military said one of more than 100 Afghan soldiers involved in the fighting was killed and three others were wounded. However, another Afghan commander, Khial Baz, said two died.

Peat said no US ground troops were involved.

"The coalition and Afghan security forces continue to reap outstanding results" against militants, a US statement said, "refusing to allow them to gather enough strength to affect progress toward a democratic government in Afghanistan."

Khost borders Pakistan's Waziristan tribal area, where officials in the Pakistani capital, Islamabad, say hundreds of foreign fighters have found refuge among sympathetic Pashtun tribesmen, the same ethnic group from which the Taliban draws its main strength.

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