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NATO says at least 115 militants killed in ongoing operation in eastern Afghanistan
KABUL, Afghanistan (AP) ' NATO and Afghan forces have killed at least 115 insurgents over the past week as part of an ongoing operation in a northeastern Afghanistan province, the coalition said Thursday, as it looks to curb insurgent activity along the border with neighboring Pakistan.
The fighting in Kunar province, known for its rugged terrain that leaves coalition supply lines from Pakistan vulnerable to insurgent attacks, comes as NATO is stepping up efforts to secure the country and ready Afghan forces to fully take over security responsibilities before international forces wind down their combat mission in 2014.
NATO said the operation has been going on since around Oct. 15 and has included the use of fighter jets and long-range bombers. The alliance said that one NATO service member has been killed since the fighting began. It was not immediately clear if any Afghan troops had been killed.
"This is a series of multiple, smaller operations that have a combined, larger impact," said Master Sgt. Nicholas Conner, a NATO spokesman at Bagram Air Field. "Most of the Kunar region is marked with isolated pockets of villages that (Afghan and NATO) forces focus on at the company level or smaller."
On the diplomatic front, U.S. Secretary of State Hillary Rodham Clinton arrived Wednesday in the Afghan capital in an unannounced visit. She is expected to encourage President Hamid Karzai to move ahead with Taliban reconciliation efforts and boost cooperation with Pakistan as the Obama administration looks ahead to the withdrawal of combat forces from the country.
Karzai has grown leery of the reconciliation effort and has also said that Pakistan must do more to control the militant networks that find safe haven in the neighboring country and use it as a staging ground for operations that challenge his government's efforts to rebuild after a decade of fighting against the Taliban.
The diplomatic push comes in tandem with the military operations, which have increasingly focused on eastern Afghanistan. The area has seen an uptick in NATO and Afghan operations after an earlier focus on the Taliban's traditional strongholds in the country's south forced the insurgents to shift their efforts to other, often quieter, regions.
The border area with Pakistan has long been a source of concern for NATO and Afghan officials and forces.
The region is rife with militant activity spearheaded by the Haqqani network, an al-Qaida and Taliban-linked movement that operates out of Pakistan and has been blamed for some of the most high-profile attacks in Afghanistan's capital, Kabul.
Kunar falls outside of that insurgent group's core area but has long been an al-Qaida den, drawing in foreign fighters who pose as much of a risk to Afghanistan's future security as their Taliban allies.
A host of other groups also operate in the region, where the presence of coalition and Afghan forces has been far less concentrated. That, along with the disputed Durand Line, the 19th century demarcation between present day Afghanistan and Pakistan, has become fertile ground for increased conflicts that draw in not only NATO and Afghan forces, but also the Pakistani military.
NATO's top commander in Afghanistan, Marine Gen. John Allen said among the militant groups that operate in the area "can move pretty easily back and forth across the border."
"The ground is very rugged. It is very high," Allen told The Associated Press in an interview Wednesday. "It's just tough to control the ground."
He said that sometimes the militants move over the Pakistani side of the border to attack Pakistani troops and frontier scouts.
With the militants sandwiched between two sets of militaries, their hit-and-run operations on both sides of the border have led to allegations by Afghans in the area that the Pakistani military has been firing hundreds of rockets into Kunar and neighboring Nuristan province. NATO and Pakistani officials have said the reports are exaggerated.
The Kunar operation's main focus is on cleansing the area of insurgent activity, said Conner, the NATO spokesman.
"The fact is, we target bad guys," he said. In tandem with NATO's Afghan partners, "we go after them wherever they are; whoever they are."
"The aim is to create the conditions for a stable and peaceful region where the Afghan government is connected to the Afghan people and vice versa," he said.
Associated Press writer Deb Riechmann contributed to this report.