"The weather is getting warmer and Taliban attacks on coalition and Afghan forces have begun," said Mullah Mohammad Hanif by telephone from an undisclosed location.

Fighting traditionally picks up in the Afghan spring when snow blocking mountain passes melts.

According to the US military's statement, four other coalition soldiers and an Afghan soldier were wounded in the attack in Helmand province, and about a dozen insurgents were killed.

The attack was in Sangin district, where regular violence linked to Taliban insurgents occur, about 110km northwest of Kandahar.

Mortars, rocket-propelled grenades and small arms were used, Canada's department of national defence said.

Helmand is one of the provinces worst affected by an insurgency launched by the Taliban after being ousted from power in November 2001 by the US.

The province's rugged mountains are popular hiding places for the fighters, many of whom are believed to slip back and forth across the largely unguarded border with Pakistan.

Increasing violence

Violence has intensified in recent months and the Taliban has vowed to unleash a new wave of attacks in its campaign to oust foreign forces and the Western-backed government of Hamid Karzai, the president.

"Taliban attacks on coalition and Afghan forces have begun"

Mullah Mohammad Hanif,
Taliban spokesman

Six Afghan soldiers were killed in Sangin on Tuesday when a bomb struck their vehicle, which burst into flames, said General Rahmatullah Raufi, the army corps commander for the southern region.

Despite the rising level of violence, the US is hoping to trim its force of more than 18,000 troops in Afghanistan by several thousand, while Nato partners, including Britain, Canada and the Netherlands are sending about 6,000 more.