The fighting in the southern province of Helmand took place 15 km (nine miles) south of Lashkar Gah, as police hunted Taliban militants, said Mullah Amir Mohammed Akhundza, the provincial deputy governor, who led the operation.

 

Nineteen bodies of militants were recovered, and 17 other suspected Taliban were caught, including two Pakistanis, he said. Hundreds of policemen were involved in the clashes that started early Sunday, said Ghulam Nabi Malakhail, Helmand police chief. Two policemen were wounded.

 

Afghanistan is experiencing its worst spate of violence since late 2001, when the Taliban regime was overthrown in a US-led invasion. More than 800 people, mostly militants, have died nationwide since mid-May.

 

The most intense fighting has been in the south, where NATO is bolstering its presence as it prepares to take over the security of the region from US-led coalition by the end of July with troop numbers increased to 16,000 from 9,700.

 

It's one of the biggest and most dangerous missions in NATO's history, and has been met with stiff resistance from Taliban-led fighters who increasingly appear to adopt methods used by militants in Iraq.

 

Twin suicide bombing

 

Nato will take over the region's
security from the US by late July 

Spokesman Maj. Scott Lundy, meanwhile, said on Sunday that the US-led coalition was investigating two near-simultaneous suicide blasts in Kandahar a day earlier that killed six Afghan civilians and two Canadian soldiers - an attack claimed by the Taliban. Thirty-two others were wounded.

 

Saturday's twin-suicide bombing in Kandahar is a tactic sometimes used against US forces in Iraq. Qari Yousaf Ahmadi, a purported Taliban spokesman, said both suicide bombers were Afghans and threatened with more such attacks and ambushes against the US-led coalition and Afghan forces.

 

In other clashes, suspected Taliban militants killed three Afghan policemen and one civilian in Gelan in central Ghazni province on Saturday, police said. A roadside bomb hit a security patrol, wounding two coalition troops and one Afghan army soldier southwest of the eastern city of Gardez, said Sgt. Chris Miller, a coalition spokesman.

 

On the outskirts of Khost, a plainclothes policeman on Sunday challenged two suspected Taliban militants carrying a remote-controlled bomb hidden on a bicycle, said Gen. Mohammed Ayub, the provincial police chief. One of the suspects managed to escape, while the other was arrested.