Militants exploded a vehicle outside the gates of a US coalition base in eastern Afghanistan on Saturday, sparking a two-hour gunbattle that ended when American troops called in airstrikes, officials said. Two US troops were killed and four were wounded.
More than 30 insurgents were killed by the airstrikes in Zerok district of Paktika province, said Hamidullah Zawak, the provincial governor spokesman.
The multi-pronged attack near the Pakistan border came as thousands of Marines in southern Afghanistan pursued the biggest US military operation here since the American-led invasion of 2001, trying to cut insurgent supply lines and win over local elders.
It underscored the dangers that the over-stretched US forces will face as they widen their battle against the Taliban, who have made a violent comeback following their initial defeat in the 2001. Responding to the deteriorating security situation, President Barack Obama's administration has ordered 21,000 additional troops to Afghanistan and expects the total number of US forces there to reach 68,000 by year's end.
That is double the number of troops in Afghanistan in 2008 but still half as many as are now in Iraq. Saturday's attack started when insurgents drove an explosives-laden vehicle toward the gates of the American base, and the vehicle blew up, Zawak said. For two hours, insurgents then fired at the base from several locations before US-called airstrikes ended the fight, he said.
Two US troops were killed and four were wounded in the assault, said Tech. Sgt. Chuck Marsh, a US military spokesman. An Afghan soldier was also wounded, Zawak said. The base housed both US and Afghan soldiers, he said.
Zawak said 32 insurgents were killed in the airstrikes, and the authorities have already recovered 16 bodies. Because of the area's remoteness, it was impossible to independently verify Zawak's claim.
Saturday's attack happened in the same province where an American soldier and three Afghans were believed captured by insurgents Tuesday.
US troops continued looking for the soldier, Navy Chief Petty Officer Brian Naranjo said Friday. The military has not publicly identified him.
No immediate claim of responsibility was made by any insurgent group for the missing soldier or Saturday's attack. Taliban faction led by Sirajuddin Haqqani operate in the area where the attack took place. The US has accused Haqqani of masterminding beheadings and suicide bombings, including the July 2008 attack on the Indian Embassy in Kabul that killed 60 people.