KABUL, Afghanistan - Explosions echoed through vineyards and pomegranate groves yesterday as Afghan and NATO forces backed by helicopter gunships recaptured at least four villages in southern Afghanistan that had been seized by the Taliban, Afghan authorities said.
At least three dozen insurgents, including a commander, and two Afghan soldiers were killed in the Arghandab district northwest of Kandahar, Afghanistan's Defense Ministry said. By day's end, the insurgents were still in control of a half-dozen villages.
Elsewhere in Afghanistan's volatile south, four British soldiers were killed by a roadside bomb in Helmand province, Western military officials said. It was the largest number of British troops killed in a single incident this year, reflecting growing Taliban prowess in preparing and planting powerful improvised explosive devices.
The British troop loss came less than a week after four U.S. Marines were killed in a roadside bombing in Farah province, the highest American toll in an attack in Afghanistan this year.
Analysts have said that 2008 is shaping up as the most violent year since the toppling of the Taliban movement more than six years ago. NATO officials say the insurgency is being fueled by Taliban fighters who take shelter in Pakistan in between hit-and-run confrontations with Afghan and Western troops.
The Arghandab offensive, one of the largest in months by the Western-led coalition, was expected to take about three days, the NATO command said. Taliban forces, their ranks swelled by a jailbreak in Kandahar last week that freed hundreds of militants, moved into Arghandab late Sunday.
The densely populated farming district is an important gateway to Kandahar, 10 miles to the southeast. The city was the birthplace of the Taliban movement and is considered strategically pivotal to Afghanistan's entire south.
NATO's International Security Assistance Force said in a statement yesterday that Kandahar "remains firmly under the control of the Afghan government, despite rumors that the Taliban might attack."
Thousands of villagers fled Arghandab before the offensive began at dawn yesterday. Civilians who remained in the area described militants taking shelter in culverts and along riverbanks as helicopter gunships raked the area with fire.
A tribal elder in Arghandab, Haji Ghulam Farooq, said the insurgents, armed with automatic rifles and rocket-propelled grenades, were fleeing northward as Afghan and Canadian troops moved in from the south on foot.
Taliban fighters generally shun confrontations with better-equipped Western-led forces, but insurgent commanders had expressed determination this time to hold their ground and to strike next at Kandahar.
NATO officials insisted yesterday that the size of the Taliban presence in the area had been greatly exaggerated. But villagers, local officials and Afghanistan's Defense Ministry said the Taliban force numbered in the hundreds.
NATO estimates of the number of refugees also have been at odds with those of local officials. Brig. Gen. Carlos Branco, a NATO spokesman, had said that villagers did not appear to be fleeing in large numbers, but witnesses described a panicked exodus of hundreds of farm families.
Ahmed Wali Karzai, a provincial commissioner and a brother of President Hamid Karzai, put the number of those who had taken shelter in and near Kandahar at about 1,500 families, or about 4,000 people.
The governor of Kandahar province, Asadullah Khalid, said yesterday that Afghan authorities had appealed for United Nations help in dealing with those displaced by the conflict.
In eastern Paktika province, two coalition soldiers were killed and 10 wounded when their patrol was attacked by insurgents, the military reported without providing details. Fighting also flared yesterday in Zabol province, which adjoins Kandahar province.
M. Karim Faiez and Laura King write for the Los Angeles Times.