KABUL - Pakistani authorities, aided by U.S. intelligence, have apprehended more Afghan Taliban chiefs, which together with the earlier capture of a top Taliban military commander, represent the biggest blow to the insurgents since the U.S.-led invasion in 2001.
The arrests of more than a dozen Taliban leaders, including known associates of Osama bin Laden, came as militants fought to keep a grip on their southern stronghold of Marjah. Hundreds of fighters were holding out against a six-day-old assault by 15,000 U.S., NATO and Afghan troops.
NATO said six international service members died Thursday, bringing the number killed in the offensive to 11 NATO troops and one Afghan soldier.
The arrests follow the capture in Karachi of Mullah Abdul Ghani Baradar, second only to the Taliban's one-eyed leader, Mullah Mohammad Omar. The White House and the Pakistani army have confirmed Baradar's arrest but have issued few details.
Pakistani intelligence officials said Baradar was traveling by car on the outskirts of Karachi when agents intercepted his vehicle, arresting him along with three bodyguards. One intelligence official said Baradar has provided "useful" information that led to the arrests of other militants.
They said communications intercepted by U.S. authorities played a key role in tracking and arresting the suspects, who were in Karachi buying timers and other bomb-making equipment. They were taken to Islamabad for questioning.
Among those arrested were Ameer Muawiya, a bin Laden associate who was in charge of foreign al-Qaida militants in Pakistan's border areas, and Akhunzada Popalzai, also known as Mohammad Younis, a onetime Taliban shadow governor in Zabul province and former police chief in Kabul, according to Mullah Mamamood, a tribal leader in Ghazni province.
Others captured in Karachi included Hamza, a former Afghan army commander in Helmand province during Taliban rule, and Abu Riyad al Zarqawi, a liaison with Chechen and Tajik militants in Pakistan's border area, Pakistani officials said.
Taliban shadow governors, Mullah Abdul Salam of Kunduz province and Mullah Mohammad in Baghlan province, were arrested separately in Pakistan about 10 to 12 days ago, according to the Kunduz governor, Mohammad Omar.
Taliban spokesmen have denied the arrests, accusing NATO of spreading propaganda to undermine the morale of Taliban fighters holding out in Marjah.