KANDAHAR, Afghanistan - A NATO and Afghan operation to retake a Taliban-controlled town in southern Afghanistan has killed at least 12 Taliban fighters and two children, the Afghan Defense Ministry said yesterday.

Taliban fighters overran Musa Qala in February, four months after British troops left the town after a contentious peace agreement that gave security responsibilities to Afghan elders. The Taliban has been in control of the town ever since.

A string of battles around the town in recent months have signaled a renewed focus by U.S. forces to take on the Taliban stronghold in Afghanistan's poppy-growing south. Yesterday's violence is the latest in a series of deadly engagements in Helmand province, the world's largest poppy-growing region and the front line of Afghanistan's bloodiest fighting this year.

Gen. Mohammad Zahir Azimi, a Defense Ministry spokesman, said that elders in the area had asked the Taliban to leave, but that when they refused, the elders sought help from government troops. "For some period of time, Musa Qala has become a base for terrorists. Hundreds of foreign terrorists have gathered there," he said.

"The enemy always tries to use human shields . . . and our demand from them is that they stop putting civilian lives in danger," Azimi said.

U.S.-led coalition forces, meanwhile, conducted air strikes in an operation targeting a Taliban commander believed to be responsible for attacks against security forces and involvement in weapons and drug trafficking, the coalition said. The U.S.-led forces bombarded the compound where he was hiding with several militants Friday in Musa Qala district.

In other violence in southern Afghanistan, a NATO soldier was killed and another wounded in an explosion yesterday, NATO's International Security Assistance Force said. Officials gave no further details.