KABUL, Afghanistan (AP) - U.S. jets pounded a Taliban mountain hideout Monday, killing at least 14 insurgents in the deadliest air assault since rebels launched a series of strikes against Afghan government targets, U.S. and Afghan officials said.
Sweeping through the rugged mountains of southeastern Afghanistan, scores of Afghan militia and U.S.-led coalition special forces hunted down suspected Taliban fighters, who in recent weeks have been waging attacks on police officials and government convoys.
The Taliban violence has killed dozens of people and cast a shadow over American-led efforts to rebuild the war-battered country. As part of the operation, about 100 suspected guerrillas have been arrested in the past few days, Afghan officials said.
Monday's attack was carried out jointly by Afghan provincial militia forces and U.S. Army Special Forces soldiers, as well as A-10 ground attack jets, F-16 fighter bombers and AV-8B Harrier attack jets, said Army Lt. Col. Jim Cassella, a Pentagon spokesman.
In the campaign, dubbed "Operation Warrior Sweep," fighter jets provided air support for ground troops and blasted the mountain region that runs between Kandahar and Zabul provinces, said Col. Rodney Davis, spokesman for the U.S. military at coalition headquarters at Bagram Air Base, north of Kabul.
Davis said 14 "enemy" fighters were killed. Juma Khan, a district police chief, put the death toll at 16. Ahmad Khan, spokesman for the provincial governor, claimed that at least 50 died, but there was no way to independently confirm the varying reports.
There were no reported coalition casualties in the operation, which was continuing, Davis said.
Afghan officials said the U.S. jets destroyed the Taliban camp, which was located in the Dai Chupan district of southeastern Zabul province.
A Taliban spokesman, Mohammed Hanif, told The Associated Press by satellite telephone that only civilians were killed in two separate offensives by Afghan government troops, and that the Taliban contingent had fled.
"It was a massive force of the government who wanted to kill and arrest the Taliban, but they were not successful," Hanif said, adding that the Taliban soldiers were led by Amir Khan Haqqani.
The recent anti-government assaults, mostly in the south and east of Afghanistan but also in some central regions, suggest that the Taliban are regrouping after the harsh Islamic regime was toppled by U.S.-led forces in late 2001.
There have been reports that the Taliban's leader, Mullah Mohammed Omar, has appointed military commanders to areas of control.
Afghan presidential spokesman Jawad Luddin said the guerrilla attacks were an attempt to undermine Afghan President Hamid Karzai.
He said the violence was localized in areas "where the terrorists find a soft space to operate," and claimed they were linked to terrorist cells outside the country - an apparent reference to neighboring Pakistan. The area where the raids took place was about 90 miles from the Pakistani border.
In separate operations, Afghan and U.S. forces, backed by helicopter gunships and fighter jets, apparently arrested about 100 people in recent days, said Khan Sayed, spokesman for the provincial police chief.
More than a week ago, hundreds of suspected Taliban, reportedly riding in pickup trucks, launched bloody attacks on police stations in Paktika. Local officials said the insurgents rumbled into the area from the direction of Pakistan.
On Saturday, at least five government soldiers riding in a truck were killed in a Taliban ambush in Dai Chupan, although the Taliban put the death toll at 12.
The Afghan administration has complained to Pakistan - a U.S. ally in the war on terror - that Taliban leaders appear to have found refuge in its lawless tribal regions. Pakistan has deployed its troops there but the border regions are long and porous and lined with rugged mountains in which to hide.