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Deadly days for Taliban

KABUL, Afghanistan -- A gun battle and air strikes killed two dozen Taliban fighters in southern Afghanistan, while more than 20 suspected militants drowned when Afghan forces sank their boat as they crossed a river trying to elude an attack, officials said yesterday.

NATO's International Security Assistance Force, meanwhile, said one of its soldiers died in eastern Afghanistan during a clash with insurgents. The soldier's nationality was not released. Most soldiers in the east are Americans.

In the southern battle, Taliban guerrillas attacked Afghan and US-led coalition troops with rockets and guns Monday in Shah Wali Kot district in Kandahar Province, sparking a four-hour firefight, a coalition statement said. Warplanes bombed three enemy positions, it said.

The statement said "an estimated two dozen enemy fighters" were killed, but gave no further details on casualties.

In neighboring Helmand Province, 20 to 30 suspected Taliban members fleeing Afghan and foreign troops drowned in the Helmand River after gunfire from security forces sank their boat as it tried to cross from Sangin to Musa Qala, said General Mohammad Zahir Azimi of the Ministry of Defense.

"The enemy shot from the boat toward the security forces and the security forces in response shot at the boat. As a result the boat sank," the Defense Ministry said in a statement.

The drowning was the second in a week. On Friday, a makeshift boat carrying Taliban fighters fleeing a battle sank, killing about 60 people, Azimi said.

Elsewhere, a man claiming to be the Taliban's new southern commander said the hard-line militia beheaded an Afghan health worker yesterday and would kill another hostage each day until the body of his predecessor and brother, Mullah Dadullah, was handed over to relatives.

Saying he was Mansoor Dadullah, the man said the militants held four more health workers and 15 Afghan soldiers.

"We are giving a warning to the government to hand over the body of Dadullah," he said by satellite phone. "Today we beheaded one of the doctors and we will behead the others as well."

Taliban fighters kidnapped a doctor, three nurses, and a driver in Kandahar Province in March.

There was no way to substantiate the claimed beheading or to verify the man on the phone was Mansoor Dadullah.