Afghan casualties rise

US-led troops and aircraft pounded Taliban militants, killing more than 35, as the coalition pressed on with its largest ever anti-Taliban offensive in Afghanistan's insurgent-haunted south, officials said.

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Fighting between militants and coalition and Afghan forces appears to be intensifying after a traditional winter lull. A rash of NATO fatalities suggests the insurgency remains virulent.

A British soldier from the 1st Battalion The Royal Anglian Regiment, was killed, and two others wounded, during a gunbattle in the south on Friday, officials said. The two wounded soldiers were hospitalised and their condition was not serious, NATO said.

In Helmand province, the focus of the offensive, US-led coalition and Afghan troops clashed for five hours Thursday with guerrillas in the district of Sangin, a coalition statement said.

The troops "pursued fleeing Taliban fighters northward," and "more than 35 Taliban fighters were killed," the statement said.

The account could not be independently verified because of the remoteness of the area.

More than 5,000 NATO and Afghan troops are engaged in Operation Achilles, launched last month to flush militants entrenched in the northern tip of the opium-producing province.

A series of bomb and gun attacks have killed 11 NATO soldiers since last weekend, despite their superior firepower and support from the US-trained Afghan army.

Roadside bombs struck two NATO convoys in the east Thursday, killing two soldiers. Another NATO soldier was wounded. Most alliance soldiers in the east are American.

A bomb in the south Wednesday killed two Canadian soldiers and wounded three others. Another six Canadians died in a single bomb attack on their convoy on Sunday – the worst combat loss for the alliance this year.

Fighting is also going on in Zabul, a province on the Pakistani border, where officials reported 35 suspected militants killed in an airstrike called by US-led troops on Thursday.

The violence coincided with a gathering of NATO military officials in Canada to discuss how to strengthen their efforts in Afghanistan.

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