KABUL, Afghanistan (AP) — A coordinated Taliban assault on checkpoints in southern Afghanistan killed four police before a counterattack drove the insurgents back, Afghan officials said Tuesday. Also, at least 10 other police died in two attacks in the country's west.
The deadly 24 hours came during a crucial season of fighting that is testing the abilities of Afghan security forces as international troops increasingly draw back, preparing for withdrawal of most foreign soldiers by the end of next year.
The fierce battle in Helmand province started two nights ago. Omar Zawak, spokesman for the provincial governor, said about 500 insurgents attacked multiple police checkpoints from several directions. A NATO official said that number was greatly overstated, and the Taliban agreed.
Fighting raged for more than a day in the hotly contested Sangin district before police reinforcements arrived from the provincial capital, Lashkar Gar. Police were finally able to beat back the insurgents by Tuesday morning, Zawak said. He said four police were killed and seven wounded, while 26 Taliban were killed, though government forces recovered only three enemy bodies.
The Taliban claimed on Monday night that they had seized six of the checkpoints. By Tuesday afternoon, insurgent spokesman Qari Yousef Ahmadi was no longer making that claim but said that the fighting was not yet over.
Government spokesman Zawak portrayed the successful defense as showing the strength of the Afghan forces, though both the Taliban and the U.S.-led military coalition downplayed the size of the attacking force.
The international force "is not seeing anywhere near the reported 500-1,000 insurgents," coalition spokesman Col. Thomas Collins said. "Our reporting shows there were about 10 groups of four or five fighters each doing drive-by shootings against five police checkpoints. Local Afghan security forces called for (Afghan) reinforcements, and none of the checkpoints were overrun."
The Taliban's Ahmadi said the attacking force numbered less than 100.
"Five hundred Taliban can attack all of Helmand province. We don't need 500 Taliban to attack only one district," he said by telephone Tuesday afternoon. He said the insurgents killed 10 police and lost four of their own fighters.
In recent months, the Taliban have launched a fierce offensive against the Afghan government they want to overthrow, unleashing a wave of assassinations and bombings. Insurgents have also been attacking police positions around the country, seeking to seize territory. Their aim is to weaken the government ahead of the pullout of most international troops from the country by the end of next year.
Afghan security forces have been increasingly taking the lead in fighting insurgents, and the current fighting season, called the Taliban's annual spring offensive, is seen as a crucial test of their capabilities without foreign soldiers fighting alongside them.
In the western province of Herat, a powerful roadside bomb killed six policemen Tuesday morning. Their vehicle hit the explosives buried in the road, an Afghan official said.
The explosion was so strong that the police truck was destroyed in the blast, District Police Chief Sher Agha said, and there were no survivors.
Also in the west, a gunman in Farah province opened fire Monday at another police outpost, killing four officers. Provincial government spokesman Abdul Rahman Zhwandai said a Taliban spy posing as a friend of one of the officers killed the four and wounded two others at the checkpoint in Bala Buluk district.
Associated Press writers Amir Shah in Kabul and Mirwais Khan in Kandahar contributed.