200 Taliban rebels killed in Musa Qala operation: Afghan official

( AFP ) - More than 200 militants were killed in last month's major operation to retake the southern Taliban stronghold of Musa Qala, the Afghan defence ministry said Thursday.

Seventeen Taliban commanders were among the dead following the military operation to drive out the rebels who had held the small town in volatile Helmand province for 10 months, the ministry said.

"This is an assessed death toll. Now we know that over 200 Taliban were killed within the frame of operation Musa Qala," said senior defence ministry spokesman General Mohammad Zahir Azimi.

"Seventeen of them were Taliban commanders," he added, declining to provide details. At least four civilians were also killed in the fighting, he said.

Afghan military forces backed by the mainly British NATO-led International Security Assistance Force (ISAF) captured the trouble-torn town in December in what they said was the year's biggest operation.

The ministry had not yet given a precise death toll for the operation, saying it was assessing the number of casualties, although the Afghan army has said "hundreds" of rebels were either killed, wounded or arrested.

Two ISAF soldiers were also killed, the international force has said.

The Taliban stormed Musa Qala 10 months ago, breaking a controversial deal in which British forces pulled out on the request of elders who said they would handle security after months of intense fighting.

The town then became a base for the fighters, whose insurgency is at its bloodiest this year with around 6,000 people dead. The operation to take it back had been long awaited.

Helmand is Afghanistan's main opium-growing area and a stronghold for the Taliban militia who were removed from government in 2001 for harbouring Al-Qaeda leaders after the September 11 attacks on the United States.

Southern Afghanistan, from where the Taliban rose in early 1996, sees the worst of the insurgency violence with regular attacks.

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