Nato hits inside Pakistan
Kabul - Nato helicopters in eastern Afghanistan launched rare airstrikes into Pakistan, reportedly killing more than 50 militants after an outpost near the border came under attack from insurgents, officials said on Monday.
International forces also pressed forward with a key combat phase in their drive to rout Taliban fighters around the southern city of Kandahar, an operation that is key to US military strategy to turn around the 9-year war and prevent the Taliban from undermining the Afghan government.
The airstrikes into Pakistan came after the insurgents attacked a small Afghan security outpost near the border, and Nato justified the strikes based on "the right of self-defence", a spokesperson said.
Pakistan is sensitive about attacks on its territory, but US officials have said they have an agreement that allows aircraft to cross a few kilometres into Pakistani airspace if they are in hot pursuit of a target.
The first strike took place on Saturday after insurgents based in Pakistan attacked the outpost in Afghanistan's eastern province of Khost, which is located right across the border from Pakistan's North Waziristan tribal area, said US Captain Ryan Donald, a spokesperson for the Nato-led International Security Assistance Force in Afghanistan.
"The ISAF helicopters did cross into Pakistan territory to engage the insurgents," Donald said. "ISAF maintains the right to self-defence, and that's why they crossed the Pakistan border."
Police under attack
The strike killed 49 militants, said US Major Michael Johnson, another ISAF spokesperson.
The provincial police chief in Khost, Abdul Hakim Ishaqzie, cited a higher death toll of around 60 militants.
He said police at checkpoints at the border came under attack, engaged the militants in a gun battle and then called for help, prompting the helicopter strikes.
"It was a very effective operation against the militants," he said. "Around 60 militants were killed. Police forces collected ammunition and weapons from the battlefield."
It was not immediately clear how Nato and the Afghan police chief were able to confirm the fatalities on the Pakistan side of the border.
The second attack occurred when helicopters returned to the border area and were attacked by insurgents based in Pakistan, Donald said.
"The helicopters returned to the scene and they received direct small arms fire and, once again operating in self-defence, they engaged the insurgents," Donald said.
The second strike killed at least four militants, Johnson said.
Officials still investigating
Pakistani intelligence officials said two Nato helicopters carried out a third strike inside Pakistani territory on Monday morning, killing five militants and wounding nine others.
The strike occurred in the village of Mata Sanger in the Kurram tribal area, which is directly across the border from the Afghan provinces of Paktia and Nangarhar, said the officials, speaking on condition of anonymity because they were not authorised to talk to the media.
Donald said officials were still investigating and could not confirm or deny reports of the attack in Kurram.
The Pakistani military could not be reached to comment on the Nato attacks. While airstrikes by unmanned US drones believed operated by the CIA against al-Qaeda and Taliban targets are common inside Pakistan's tribal regions, particularly North Waziristan, major strikes using manned aircraft are rare.
On Monday, a suspected US missile strike killed two people near Mir Ali, a major town in the North Waziristan, Pakistani intelligence officials said on condition of anonymity because they were not authorised to talk to the media. It was the 20th such attack this month.
In south Afghanistan, meanwhile, international and Afghan forces were moving into two or three areas around Kandahar at once to pressure the Taliban "so they don't get the chance to run away," Shah Mohammad Ahmadi, chief of Arghandab district northwest of the city, said on Monday.
"Before, when we have tried to get rid of the Taliban, when we cleaned one area we found more Taliban in a different one," he said.
Nato: No Afghan troops killed
A top Nato officer said on Sunday that the alliance a few days ago had launched a "kinetic", or combat, phase of "Operation Dragon Strike", a joint military push with Afghan forces around Kandahar intended to rid the area of insurgents and interrupt their ability to move freely and stage attacks.
"It is a significant ground operation with air support," Josef Blotz, a Nato spokesperson, said at a news conference. "We expect heavy fighting."
"Afghanistan and coalition forces are destroying Taliban positions so they will have nowhere to hide," Blotz said. "Once this is done, insurgents will be forced to leave the area or fight and be killed."
Nato said militants have fought back with rocket-propelled grenades and small-arms fire.
It said no Afghan or coalition troops have been killed in the operation.
The push in Kandahar is seen as key to the Obama administration's strategy to turn around the war as insurgents undermine the ability of an Afghan government to rule much of the country.
UK woman kidnapped
Kandahar remains particularly dangerous; seven U.S. troops have been killed in Kandahar this month. Another three have been killed in the south, but no further details have been released.
"First, they are clearing the area of Taliban and then they are searching the area for mines," said Kareem Jan, district chief of Zhari, west of Kandahar.
In another volatile section of the nation, British officials said on Monday that they were in contact with Afghan authorities about the disappearance of a British aid worker and three of her Afghan colleagues.
The four were ambushed on Sunday as they travelled in two vehicles in north-eastern Kunar province.
Police fought with the kidnappers near the attack site before the assailants fled, Kunar police chief Khalilullah Zaiyi said.
Tim Waite, a spokesperson for the British Embassy in Kabul, said officials were working closely with all relevant local authorities and said the worker's family had been contacted.