The insurgents ambushed a police convoy in a remote district of southern Helmand province as the officers were looking for a suspected militant hideout, provincial administration's deputy chief, Ghulam Moheedin, said on Saturday.

  

Nine officers, including the unit commander, were killed in a fierce battle that followed. Four Taliban fighters were also killed, Moheedin said.

  

"The fighting lasted for two hours," he said.

 

An Interior Ministry spokesman in Kabul said the police had been searching for insurgents after being tipped off by captured Taliban that there were dozens of them in the area,  spokesman Yousuf Stanizai told AFP.

  

"Some two days ago, we captured two Taliban who later told us that there was a big Taliban hideout in the region" 

Ghulam Moheedin,
deputy chief of southern Helmand province

Helmand is one of several provinces in southern and eastern Afghanistan that serve as the hub of the insurgency launched by the Taliban after they were removed from power in late 2001 in a US-led campaign.

  

Government officials, aid workers and foreign security forces have been targets in near-daily violence.

  

In one of the worst attacks on Afghanistan's fledgling police force, which started forming after the Taliban were removed, 18 officers were killed in an ambush in Helmand about 10 days ago.

 

Journalist killed

 

Meanwhile the journalist, a 22-year-old cultural reporter with a local radio station, was killed in a bomb blast in the eastern province of Khost, a provincial intelligence official said.

  

The remote-controlled bomb appeared to have targeted one of several American-funded militia units that are helping a nearly 20,000-strong US-led coalition force to hunt down Taliban insurgents.

 

Three men working with the unit were also wounded in the blast on Saturday on the outskirts of the provincial capital, Intelligence Director Sadeq Tarakhil told AFP.

  

One included the son of the head of the unit, Commander Khyal Baz Sherzai, he said.

  

Sherzai said he might have been the intended target, although he had not been in the vehicle at the time. "They attacked my car - perhaps I was the target," he said.

  

Tarakhil blamed the attack on the "enemies of Afghanistan's stability", a term often used to refer to Taliban members.

  

The Taliban, which gained control over most of Afghanistan in 1996 after years of civil war, were removed from power in a US-led campaign launched after the 11 September 2001 attacks on the United States.

  

More than 1400 people - many of them militants - have been killed this year in attacks linked to political violence.

 

US atrocities

 

In a development that has worried the authorities, three pro-government religious leaders were among the latest victims of suspected Taliban attacks.

  

Reports of abuse by US forces
have angered the Afghan public

Thousands of people marched through Khost city this past week to condemn the murders, calling the attackers "terrorists" and urging Pakistan to do more to round up militants believed to be sheltered in its rugged tribal area bordering Afghanistan.

  

While the march highlighted public disgust with the Taliban, there was outrage about allegations that US soldiers burned the bodies of two suspected Taliban militants in violation of Islam and international law.

  

The allegations come after huge protests in May about a Newsweek report of abuse of the Quran at the Guantanamo Bay detention camp, and accusations that US soldiers have abused Afghan detainees, some of whom died in custody.

  

"If those responsible are not punished, I think the Muslim nation of Afghanistan will rise against the Americans - no Muslim can tolerate such a crime," said a mullah in the conservative southern city of Kandahar