KABUL, AFGHANISTAN — Explosions echoed through vineyards and pomegranate groves Wednesday 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 fighting in the Arghandab district northwest of Kandahar, Afghanistan's Defense Ministry said. By day's end, the insurgents were still in control of about half a dozen villages, the provincial government said.
Elsewhere in Afghanistan's volatile south, four British soldiers were killed by a roadside bomb in Helmand province, 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 bombs.
The British loss came less than a week after four U.S. Marines were killed by a roadside bomb in Farah province, the highest American toll this year in an attack in Afghanistan.
Analysts have said the year is shaping up as the most violent since the toppling of the Taliban movement more than six years ago. North Atlantic Treaty Organization 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 offensive in Arghandab, one of the largest in months by the Western-led coalition, was expected to take about three days, the NATO command said in a statement. Taliban forces, their ranks swelled by a jailbreak in Kandahar last week that freed hundreds of militants, had moved into Arghandab late Sunday.
The densely populated farming district is an important gateway to Kandahar, which lies 10 miles to the southeast. The city was the birthplace of the Taliban movement and is considered strategically pivotal for Afghanistan's entire south, where the insurgency traditionally has been the strongest.
NATO's International Security Assistance Force said in a statement Wednesday that Kandahar "remains firmly under the control of the Afghan government, despite rumors that the Taliban might attack."
Thousands of villagers had fled Arghandab before the offensive began at dawn Wednesday. Civilians who remained in the area described militants taking cover 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 grenade launchers, were fleeing northward as Afghan and Canadian troops moved in from the south on foot.
Taliban fighters generally shun full-on confrontations with better-equipped Western-led forces, but insurgent commanders had expressed determination this time to hold their ground and strike next at Kandahar.
NATO officials continued to maintain that the size of the Taliban presence in the area had been greatly exaggerated. But villagers, local officials and the Defense Ministry said the Taliban force numbered in the hundreds, which is considered a substantial concentration of fighters.
NATO estimates of the number of people fleeing also have been at odds with those of local officials. Brig. Gen. Carlos Branco, a NATO spokesman, had said a day earlier that villagers did not appear to be fleeing in large numbers, but witnesses described a panicked exodus of hundreds of farm families.
Ahmed 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, which would bring the total to at least 4,000 people.
The governor of Kandahar province, Asadullah Khalid, said Wednesday that Afghan authorities had appealed for United Nations help in dealing with those displaced by the conflict.
Fighting also flared Wednesday in Zabol province, which adjoins Kandahar province. Authorities said at least a dozen insurgents were killed there.
In the eastern province of Paktia, two coalition soldiers were killed and 10 wounded when their patrol was attacked by insurgents, the military reported, without specifying the nationalities of the Western troops involved.
Special correspondent Faiez reported from Kabul and Times staff writer King from Istanbul, Turkey.