"We discovered a base with tents, food, weapons. It was here that Taliban coming from Pakistan would stay before moving out to other parts of the country," Fazluddin Agha, district police chief of Spinboldak, told The Associated Press.
U.S. air support launched from Bagram Air Base pounded the Tor Ghar mountain range, where about 60 Taliban fighters were dug in after fleeing a border village during fighting a day earlier.
Army spokesman Col. Roger King said Thursday that more than 35,000 pounds of ordnance was dropped or fired from five types of aircraft — Harrier jets, B-1 bombers, A-10 Thunderbolts and helicopter gunships — on the rebel positions over a 14-hour span.
"It's a pretty good use of close air support," King told reporters at Bagram Air Base, headquarters for the international coalition in Afghanistan. "This action has probably integrated the most different types of assets of any operation we have had in the last six months or so."
He said the operation was continuing Thursday.
About 45 special forces soldiers and 250 Afghan soldiers drove the Taliban into the mountains from the village of Sikai Lashki, 25 miles north of Spinboldak, the gateway to southeastern Afghanistan.
In the first assault, two A-10 fighter jets fired seven white phosphorous rockets and 520 30 mm rounds, the military said. Two Apache helicopters followed, firing 130 30 mm rounds and 67 2.75 mm rockets, it said.
Several Afghan fighters were injured, as were their Taliban enemies, according to Agha. He said the Taliban were being led by local commander Hafiz Abdul Rahman.
"We have found two bodies of Taliban fighters and are looking for Rahman," Agha said, adding that authorities suspect some of the Taliban were trying to flee into Pakistan.
U.S. or coalition forces haven't found such a large group of suspected Taliban in several months, King said.
"We haven't seen more than 20 at a time in a long time," he said.
There were no reports of U.S. casualties, but an Afghan militia soldier was evacuated to Kandahar airfield after being shot in the abdomen, King said. The soldier underwent an operation and his condition was stable. It was not clear how many rebel fighters had been injured.
With help from the air support, the U.S. and Afghan forces "felt that they had the enemy force pretty much pushed up into one section of high ground. They tried to keep pressure on them through the night and now they're going to go in and see what they can find today," King said.
Evidence is mounting in the southern regions of Afghanistan that the Taliban is reorganizing and has found an ally in rebel commander Gulbuddin Hekmatyar, labeled a terrorist and hunted by U.S. troops.
"Six months ago their attacks were sporadic. But today there is a new organization to the Taliban," Kandahar's 2nd Corps commander, Khan Mohammed, said at the sprawling compound where Taliban supreme leader Mullah Mohammed Omar once lived.
In the last two weeks in southern Afghanistan, a Red Cross worker was waylaid and murdered, and two U.S. servicemen were killed in an ambush on their convoy. Three explosions, apparently caused by rockets, were heard Wednesday evening at a U.S. base near Khost.
Khalid Pashtoon, a spokesman for the Kandahar governor, told The Associated Press that the Red Cross worker, Ricardo Munguia of El Salvador, was shot 20 times and the vehicles in his convoy were torched. The International Committee of the Red Cross ordered its workers not to travel until further notice.
"This is their aim, to frighten international aid workers away from southern Afghanistan so that the reconstruction cannot go ahead and the government is destabilized," said Mohammed, the 2nd Corps commander.
He accused Pakistan of aiding the Taliban's reorganization and of harboring its key leaders. He was not alone.
In Spinboldak, Khalid Khan, the town's director of foreign affairs, said Taliban leaders have found safe havens "in hundreds of homes in Quetta," the capital of Pakistan's southwestern Baluchistan province.
Khan said the support for fleeing Taliban is coming from Pakistan's militant Muslim groups. But Mohammed said it also is coming from the Pakistan government — a key ally of the U.S.-led coalition's war on terror in Afghanistan.
"Without state support these groups couldn't operate," Mohammed said.
Pakistan denies helping militant groups, yet leaders have been freed from house arrest and are urging the faithful in Pakistan mosques to wage jihad against the United States.
The latest battle in the Tor Ghar Mountains is not far from Pakistan's semiautonomous tribal belt. U.S. and European intelligence sources say Taliban fleeing the U.S. coalition in Afghanistan have found refuge in that region.