KANDAHAR, Afghanistan (AFP) — Twenty-nine Taliban were killed trying to protect opium crops from eradication in southern Afghanistan, most of them in a six-hour gunfight with police, officials said Thursday.
A senior commander was among the dead in the clashes in Helmand province, the top opium-producing area in Afghanistan, which churns out 90 percent of the world's supply to make heroin for Europe, Central Asia and the Middle East.
Rebels on Wednesday used rockets and gunfire to attack a team that was destroying opium poppy crops in remote Marja district, provincial police chief General Mohammad Hussein Andiwal told AFP.
A police vehicle was badly damaged and a policeman was wounded. Police reinforcements were sent to the area and the fighting accelerated, lasting well into the night, Andiwal said.
"The six-hour fighting killed 25 Taliban and two Taliban were arrested," he said.
On Thursday four more rebels were killed when a landmine exploded as they were planting it to target the eradication team, he said.
The interior ministry said a Taliban commander named Mullah Naqeebullah was among the dead in Wednesday's fighting. He had twice escaped from Afghan jails, it said in a statement.
A spokesman for the hardline Taliban movement, Yousuf Ahmadi, confirmed that Taliban fighters were involved in the incident but said only one was killed.
Helmand experiences some of the worst violence linked to a Taliban-led insurgency which officials say is funded in part by a 10 percent tax that the rebel movement takes from opium farmers.
Officials admit the Taliban, who were in government between 1996 and 2001, control a handful of districts in the province but say they will be removed.
The rebels used the Helmand town of Musa Qala as a base for 10 months before they were ejected in December by Afghan and international soldiers.
US intelligence officials told the US Congress Wednesday that the Taliban had retaken control of about 10 percent of the country since they were removed from power in a US-led invasion in late 2001.
The government of President Hamid Karzai meanwhile controlled just "30, 31 percent, and then the rest of it was local control," US Director of National Intelligence Mike McConnell told the Senate's Armed Services Committee.
Afghanistan's defence ministry rejected this assessment as "far from reality."
The government was in control of all 34 provinces and most districts, the defence ministry said in a statement.
Officials have said that militants control at least three districts in Helmand, but there are other areas where government authority is tenuous and security forces weak or allied with the rebels.
Last year was the deadliest of the Taliban insurgency, increasing pressure on the United States and its allies in NATO to beef up their military contingents to avoid the country falling again to the radical Islamists.