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Afghan officials claim victory after Taliban retreat
QALAT, Afghanistan -- Afghan officials claimed victory Wednesday after a nine-day siege by U.S and Afghan troops against suspected Taliban fighters holed up in a region of mountains and caves of southern Afghanistan.
Scores of Taliban guerrillas were killed and others retreated in Zabul province, local officials said.
In a sign that major fighting is over, about 600 Afghan troops have pulled out of Dai Chupan, a remote district of Zabul province, said Khalil Hotak, the province's intelligence chief. That area has been the scene of the heaviest fighting since the Taliban's fall from power in late 2001.
Afghan troops found bodies along gorges, in caves and scattered across the front lines, Hotak told The Associated Press from a command center in Qalat.
Troops found the bodies of at least 124 rebels since the joint offensive by Afghan government and U.S.-led forces began early last week, Hotak said, while most of the other Taliban fighters were believed to have slipped away. Five Afghan government troops were killed in the fighting, he said.
It was impossible to independently verify Hotak's account. U.S. officials have put the confirmed death toll among the insurgents at just 37, but have not updated that figure for two days.
"The siege has ended. We had thought there were Taliban fighters left but they have left the area," Hotak said. "We defeated the Taliban in Dai Chupan."
Earlier, Hotak told the AP that 80 percent of Zabul province was loyal to the Taliban.
Deeply conservative and religious rural residents have been told by the Taliban that the U.S. troops are infidels fighting Islam and most people believe this, giving the guerrillas the ability to move freely.
The hostilities, triggered by a wave of Taliban attacks on Afghan officials, police and aid workers in the south and east of the country, have underscored the security problems faced by the administration of President Hamid Karzai that took power soon after the Taliban's ouster by U.S.-led forces in 2001.
While Kabul-based diplomats and Afghan officials say there is little threat to the government, the capacity of the Taliban to mass hundreds of fighters in one place has shown how precarious its control is over parts of the country.
Afghan officials have said the Taliban used the mountainous district as a base for attacks.
After offering stiff resistance to coalition forces despite repeated bombing of their positions in the past week, Hotak said the Taliban had escaped from Dai Chupan to neighboring provinces in small groups.
The latest fighting involved U.S. special operations forces and soldiers from the 10th Mountain Division, with close air support. They are among the 11,500 forces of the U.S.-led coalition posted in Afghanistan to hunt down Taliban and remnants of the al-Qaida terror group.
Earlier Wednesday, U.S. and Afghan troops stormed a cave in Dai Chupan where several insurgents were believed to be holding out, as U.S. jets continued their assault from the air, Afghan and U.S. officials said.
The raid did not net any major Taliban commanders, and most of the rebels had slipped away by the time the troops moved in, Hotak said.
Some 100 Afghan soldiers and an unknown number of U.S. troops remained in the area in case of renewed Taliban attacks, Hotak said.
The U.S. military gave no immediate sign that "Operation Mountain Viper" in Dai Chupan had ended.
Spokesman Col. Rodney Davis said Wednesday that allied troops had come under fire, but there were no reported casualties. The military also said that five rockets were fired Tuesday at its base in Gardez, in eastern Afghanistan near the border with Pakistan, but there was no damage or injuries.
American fighter jets and attack helicopters bombed several suspected Taliban positions in the Larzab and Sairo Ghar mountains in Dai Chupan, said Haji Saifullah Khan, the main Afghan commander in the area.
Khan said one rebel fighter who had lost a hand in earlier combat was captured and turned over to American forces. He said the Taliban had used the rough terrain as a shield to make their escape.