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School ambushed in Afghan 'Valley of Death'
ALIABAD, Afghanistan -- The bearded Afghan army officer dropped off bundles of pens and notebooks at the school and asked one boy which he preferred: the Americans or the Taliban?
"I don't know," the boy replied. But after a short silence other children in the classroom answered for him: "The Taliban."
Within minutes the discussion was punctuated by an insurgent ambush and the joint U.S.-Afghan patrol became pinned down in this area with forested mountains, caves and ravines that American soldiers call "the Valley of Death."
Heavy machine gun fire blanketed the patrol as troops used smoke grenades and cover fire to escape the ambush. No one in the patrol was killed in the firefight Saturday.
The Korengal Valley in eastern Afghanistan's Kunar province has a reputation as one of most dangerous areas in the country, where its rugged mountainous terrain makes it a perfect insurgent playground.
The region's infamy for U.S. and Afghan troops dates back to June 2005, when a four-man team of Navy SEALs was caught in a militant ambush. Three were killed, and the fourth was rescued days later by a farmer.
A helicopter carrying American special forces sent to rescue the SEALs was shot down with a rocket-propelled grenade, killing 16 American troops in one of the deadliest single attacks on the U.S. military since the war began here in 2001.
Since then, the insurgents have used the cover of caves and trees to attack small American units patrolling the valley. Despite years of clashes and airstrikes, U.S. and Afghan forces have failed to subdue the Korengal Valley -- one of the most staunchly anti-American regions in Afghanistan.
The tribes here speak a distinct language -- Korengali -- and adhere to the austere Wahhabi brand of Islam most prevalent in Saudi Arabia, and practiced by Osama bin Laden and the Taliban.
The Saturday gunbattle erupted following a humanitarian mission to deliver 60 bags of school supplies to the students, aged 5 to 12.
An Associated Press news team embedded with the U.S. troops dashed back to the American military base nearby on dirt trails. It was unclear what happened to the students after the joint patrol retreated.
"Unfortunately the people, the Taliban, they don't like us and the coalition forces to have a good friendship with the local people," Afghan army Capt. Mubarak Shah said. "That's why they started shooting, to make a distance between the Afghan army and the people."
Faced with the growing insurgency, President Obama has ordered another 21,000 troops to join the fight in the hope of reversing the militants' gains over the past few years.
One of the first units to deploy to southern Afghanistan assumed control Saturday of aviation operations at Kandahar Airfield, a statement from the NATO-led force said.
The 82nd Combat Aviation Brigade of the 82nd Airborne Division was the first to arrive as part of the surge of troops ordered to Afghanistan by Obama earlier this year.
The new troops will bolster the record 38,000 American forces already in the country.