SANGIN VALLEY, Afghanistan - British troops pushed into a Taliban stronghold awash with opium poppies yesterday, drawing mortar and machine-gun fire, in the latest NATO drive to help the government take control of southern Afghanistan.

And in the once-stable west, the U.S. military reported killing 136 rebels during three days of clashes, the deadliest fighting in the country since January.

The operation in the southern province of Helmand and the bloodshed in the western province of Herat show how the Taliban has been able to regroup in the five years since a U.S.-led invasion drove it from power.

But it also shows how the growing number of foreign troops and Western-trained Afghan forces are confronting enemy fighters in the rural heartlands.

The British soldiers came under fire as they filtered among the mud-walled compounds and deep irrigation ditches of the militant-held lower Sangin Valley in Helmand. An Associated Press reporter saw the troops respond with artillery and fire from helicopter gunships.

There were no immediate reports of casualties in what NATO said was the latest installment of Operation Achilles, its biggest-ever anti-Taliban maneuver, which began in March.

However, in Operation Silicon, the separate U.S.-led coalition forces said they killed 87 militants during a 14-hour engagement, including air strikes on Taliban positions, in the Zerkoh Valley of Herat province Sunday.

Two days earlier, 49 suspected Taliban were killed by a combination of gunfire and an air strike, the coalition forces said. One U.S. soldier also died.

The casualty figures could not be independently confirmed, although police said "a large number of people" had died in the fighting.

The bloodshed enraged local residents. About 500 people gathered in front of the police station and government headquarters in the nearby town of Shindand yesterday, contending the dead were civilians and chanting, " 'The Americans are killing us. We are innocent!' " said the district police chief, Gen. Gul Aqa.

Some protesters were armed and opened fire on the government offices, breaking windows, before the crowd dispersed.

Afghans and Pakistanis Reach Accord on Fighting Extremists

The presidents of Afghanistan and Pakistan, often at odds over how to deal with a resurgent Taliban, agreed yesterday to share intelligence on extremist groups to bolster efforts to deny sanctuary, training and financing to terrorists in

both countries.

The two leaders have issued several past statements on the need to work together against extremists but have also squabbled publicly about what each sees as a lack of help from the other.

After a meeting arranged

by Turkish leaders who enjoy good relations with both sides, Afghan President Hamid Karzai

and Pakistan's Gen.

Pervez Musharraf issued a joint statement reiterating their promise to fight all forms of "extremism and terrorism through coordinated action."

- Associated PressEndText