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Over 100 dead in Afghan fighting

A spike in violence has led to civilian dead, waning support.

KANDAHAR, Afghanistan - More than 100 people, including militants, civilians and police, have been killed in three days of fierce clashes between NATO and the Taliban in southern Afghanistan, Afghan officials said yesterday.

To the east, U.S.-led coalition jets bombed a suspected al-Qaeda compound, killing seven boys and several fighters. The U.S. military expressed regret over the deaths Sunday but blamed insurgents for not letting the children leave the area.

The spike in violence over the last several days has led to a growing number of civilian casualties that is sapping support for foreign troops and the government of President Hamid Karzai, some say.

Even though most civilian deaths are caused by attacks initiated by the Taliban, Afghan anger is often directed toward U.S. and NATO-led troops. Such killings have prompted Afghan authorities to plead repeatedly for international forces to work more closely with Afghans.

In Uruzgan province in southern Afghanistan, the Taliban have launched what appears to be their biggest offensive of the year, forcing NATO troops to respond. Dutch military officials said hundreds of Taliban fighters attacked police posts near the strategic town of Chora on Saturday, sparking a battle that officials said was continuing.

The attack appeared to be a change in strategy by the insurgents, who have relied on an increasing number of suicide and roadside bombings this year.

Maj. Gen. Jouke Eikelboom, director of operations with the Dutch military, said Karzai and the Uruzgan governor sought military support after the attack on the police posts. A summary of fighter-jet activity from Sunday sent out by the U.S. Central Command detailed at least eight aircraft dropping bombs or firing on the area.

Precise casualty figures were not available because of the continued fighting, though two Afghan officials said more than 100 people had been killed, including at least 16 police. A Dutch soldier also died.

In eastern Paktika province, U.S.-led coalition warplanes Sunday targeted the compound that contained a mosque and a madrassa, or Islamic school, resulting in the deaths of the seven boys ages 10 to 16, Gov. Akram Akhpelwak said.

The governor said that there was normally excellent coordination between the government and international forces but that he was not told of the missile strike in advance. "We will go to the area and discuss the issue with the people and apologize," he said yesterday.

U.S. Maj. Chris Belcher, a spokesman, said troops had had "surveillance on the compound all day and saw no indications there were children inside."

"If we knew that there were children inside the building, there was no way that that air strike would have occurred," said Sgt. First Class Dean Welch, another coalition spokesman.

Reports of civilian deaths in Uruzgan were coming from various quarters. Mullah Ahmidullah Khan, the head of Uruzgan's provincial council, estimated the clashes in Chora killed 60 civilians, 70 Taliban militants, and 16 Afghan police.

Maj. John Thomas, a NATO spokesman, said he doubted that Afghan officials could tell the difference between civilians and militants, suggesting some of the wounded who claimed to be civilians were insurgents.