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U.S., Afghan forces capture key Taliban figure

KABUL - U.S. and Afghan troops seized a key Taliban figure after a four-hour gun battle, part of a strategy that NATO officials said yesterday had eliminated more than 100 insurgent leaders in the past four months.

The campaign to disrupt the Taliban's midlevel command structure is moving into high gear just as a new Afghan government is poised to offer economic incentives to lure low-level soldiers off the battlefield, a twin approach to pressure the Taliban's top echelon into seeking peace.

The latest reported capture happened Wednesday night when a prominent local Taliban leader was seized and 31 insurgents killed at a compound in the remote Baghran district in northern Helmand province.

Taliban fighters fired rocket-propelled grenades and machine guns before troops ordered a precision airstrike on their compound. Troops seized several other insurgents as well as dozens of automatic weapons, grenade launchers and 20 pounds of opium, NATO said. There were no Afghan or NATO casualties, the alliance said.

NATO routinely declines to identify captured Taliban leaders for security reasons. But a spokesman for the Helmand governor said those captured included Mullah Nazar Mohammad, the Taliban district chief of Now Zad, and Mullah Malang, a Taliban commander in Baghran.

Taliban spokesman Qari Yousef Ahmadi denied that Malang, a longtime insurgent leader in the area, had been apprehended. "He is safe and sound with us," he told The Associated Press in Kandahar, the group's birthplace. - AP

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