3 NATO soldiers killed

KANDAHAR: Insurgents killed three NATO soldiers in Afghanistan while air strikes thwarted a Taliban plan to storm a key southern town by killing 22 militants, authorities said Friday

The Taliban-led insurgency, launched after the extremists were driven from government in 2001, has stepped up in recent weeks with a series of deadly attacks that come as about 21,000 US reinforcements move into the south.

One of the dead International Security Assistance Force soldiers was a British soldier killed in a bombing in the southern province of Helmand on Thursday, the British defence ministry said.

Two more were killed in "direct fire" in the east of the country on Friday, ISAF said in a statement in Kabul that did not release their nationalities.

Most of the international troops in the east are US nationals but ISAF is made up of nearly 60,000 soldiers from 40 countries.

The new deaths would take to 105 the number of international soldiers to lose their lives in Afghanistan this year, most of them in attacks, according to a tally maintained by icasualties.org.

Afghan provincial officials reported meanwhile that security forces had been able to stop Taliban militants from attacking the Helmand provincial capital, Lashkar Gah, late Thursday by calling in air strikes.

Around 30 insurgents had gathered outside the town but authorities had learnt of their plan and called in international war planes, provincial police chief Asadullah Shirzad told AFP.

"Twenty-two Taliban were killed and six of them were known commanders," he said. Afghan security forces had moved into the area afterwards and seen some of the bodies and weapons on the ground, he said.

Helmand government spokesman Daud Ahmadi said security had been tightened in the town for the past five days after intelligence that militants planned an attack similar to one that saw multiple suicide bombings in Khost last week.

Tuesday's attack on Khost in eastern Afghanistan left up to nine Afghans dead as well as 11 suicide attackers, according to the Afghan defence ministry.

The Taliban were in government between 1996 and 2001 and are battling Afghan and international forces to take back power.

They threatened last month to step up their attacks on government officials and troops, who are braced for another intense year in an insurgency that was its deadliest in 2008.

In other incidents linked to the insurgency, a candidate for August provincial council elections was kidnapped by "rebels" in the northern province of Kunduz Friday, provincial authorities said.

A bomb blast in the eastern province of Nangarhar killed two Afghan soldiers and wounded three, a provincial official said.

On Thursday, a bomb blew up a minivan south of Kabul and killed two civilians, another official said.

And in the eastern province of Laghman, Taliban rebels attacked the main prison late Thursday with the aim of freeing inmates, a provincial official said.

"One prisoner who wanted to escape was killed and one managed to escape," he said.

The first of an extra 17,000 US soldiers headed to southern Afghanistan formally took charge Friday of air operations for the turbulent region, the NATO-led force said.

The soldiers from the 82nd Combat Aviation Brigade assumed the authority from other units at a ceremony at the Kandahar Air Field, the largest base in the south which is the main battlefield in a Taliban-led insurgency.

"They are the first echelon of the expansion forces arriving in Afghanistan," an officer in the NATO-led International Security Assistance Force (ISAF) told AFP.