ARGHANDAB (Afghanistan), June 18: Helicopter gunships and troops blasted a valley in southern Afghanistan on Wednesday in a huge offensive by Nato and local forces against Taliban militants, many of whom broke out of jail last week.

The defence ministry in Kabul said dozens of Taliban were killed in a Nato air strike and two Afghan army officers also died in the operation in Arghandab district outside Kandahar city.

The ministry said three Taliban group leaders were killed further south, adding that 12 other insurgents died in another encounter with the army in neighbouring Zabul.

Some 600 Taliban fighters on Monday took over villages in Arghandab, days after freeing hundreds of inmates in an attack on Kandahar city’s main jail, according to the Taliban and an Afghan official.

Taliban spokesman Qari Mohammad Yousuf said militants had set their sights on Kandahar itself, the movement’s birthplace, which lies about 20km from Arghandab.

After massing troops, Afghan army and Nato-led forces have now started an offensive to flush out the Taliban from the villages, while stepping up security in Kandahar city and imposing a night curfew.

Nato said it expected the operation to last for the next three days, adding the number of militants in the district had been “greatly exaggerated”.

The developments in Kandahar come amid rising violence in the past two years, the bloodiest period since the Taliban’s removal from power in 2001 in Afghanistan.

On Wednesday, four Afghan police were killed when a remote controlled bomb hit their vehicle in the southeastern province of Khost, a provincial official said. In neighbouring Paktika, two soldiers from the Nato-led force were killed and 10 wounded by a separate blast, the alliance said.

Later, an abortive suicide attack aimed at a Nato convoy in the western province of Farah, killed three Afghan civilians and wounded ten others.---Reuters