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Taliban reportedly routed in battle

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QALAT, Afghanistan — Afghan soldiers swarmed around the courtyard of the governor's office here on Thursday, claiming success after 15 days of fighting the Taliban in the mountains to the north, some of the most serious combat in the country in months. U.S. Special Forces soldiers, who took part in the operation alongside Afghan government troops, were also seen heading south on the main highway, apparently heading back to their base at Kandahar.

The operation, in the mountainous district of Deh Chopan, about 60 miles northeast of here, routed and killed several groups of Taliban fighters in a number of remote valleys, said Saifullah, the newly appointed commander of a division in Zabul, who uses only one name. The Taliban had been there for several months and were trying to use the area as a staging point for attacks on adjoining areas, he said.

The Taliban were moving to an area near the Pakistani border, Saifullah said, and the government troops planned to pursue them and seal the border. U.S.-led allied forces were also in pursuit, the U.S. military said.

"The Americans told me they had observed 80 Taliban crossing the border, escaping into Pakistan," Saifullah said. Another group of Taliban had headed for a mountainous area near the border, he said.

Pakistani forces were active on their side of the border, possibly in a coordinated operation. At least 24 Pakistani military helicopters were seen landing at an airport in the town of Bannu, a Pakistani official said., and troops were then seen moving out of the area on trucks.

Special Forces soldiers and FBI agents have been operating in the tribal areas along the border for months under conditions of extreme secrecy to avoid aggravating tribal antipathy for the U.S. presence.

The combined operations against the Taliban came after months of increasing militant activity in southern and southeastern Afghanistan. The counteroperations were mounted after the replacement of the governors and senior security officials in the southern provinces of Zabul and Kandahar, and appear to be part of a major U.S.-led effort to stamp out the Taliban and rescue the whole postwar project in Afghanistan.

The Taliban presence had been serious enough to require deployment of Special Operations forces and ground troops of the 10th Mountain Division last Saturday in the Deh Chopan area, and on the border in eastern Afghanistan. The operation was continuing on Thursday, a U.S. military spokesman, Maj. Ralf Marino, told The Associated Press on Thursday. One allied unit came under fire from two militants near Shkin, on the Pakistani border in Paktika province, he said.

A Special Forces soldier was killed and two others were wounded in the fighting in Deh Chopan, Marino said.