A government spokesman in southern Afghanistan said on Thursday that Afghan and NATO forces killed 32 Taliban fighters in a fire-fight in which three Afghan soldiers also died.

During the operation on Wednesday night, Afghan and NATO troops engaged Taliban forces in the Khoshal Kali area of Nad Ali district, Daoud Ahmadi, spokesman for the provincial governor, said.

The five-hour gun battle left “32 Taliban fighters dead,” Mr. Ahmadi said, adding that three soldiers from the Afghan national army were also killed. A NATO soldier and three other Afghan troops were wounded.

Taliban spokesman Qari Mohammad Yousif Ahmadi, rejected the government spokesman’s statement, saying only one Taliban fighter was wounded.

The Taliban fighters attacked the combined forces as they were descending from helicopters in the Sayed Abad area of the district, the Taliban spokesman said, adding that their fighters killed eleven NATO troops.

Due to security constraints it was difficult to verify independently the authenticity of the contradictory claims.

The fire-fight took place on the same day as Afghan and NATO military spokesmen in Kabul announced that a major anti-Taliban offensive was imminent, targeting the insurgents in the central part of Helmand, which they have turned into their main hub in the region.

The operation that would be conducted by thousands of Afghan, US and British troops in Helmand’s Marjah district would be the biggest assault against the Taliban since the start of the war some eight years ago. The operation is aimed at striking at the heart of the Taliban’s territory before the onset of spring, a traditional fighting season for the militants.

There are more than 110,000 US-led troops currently in Afghanistan. The US and NATO plan to send 37,000 additional soldiers by summer, with the bulk of them to be deployed to the southern region in a bid to turn the tide in the war.

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