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Death toll mounts as Afghan forces battle Taliban militants in southern Afghanistan

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KANDAHAR, Afghanistan - The death toll from a week of fighting between Afghan forces and hundreds of Taliban militants in a southern province rose above 100, officials said Thursday, while the U.N. called on all parties to protect civilians who are increasingly caught in the crossfire.

The battle is shaping up as a major test of the government's ability to maintain security in volatile areas after foreign combat troops leave by the end of 2014, increasing the urgency for the government to sign a security pact with the United States that would allow nearly 10,000 American forces to stay in the country for two more years.

Outgoing President Hamid Karzai has refused to sign the deal, saying he would leave it to his successor after results are announced in the recent presidential election. Both candidates vying to replace Karzai, who is constitutionally barred from a third term, have promised to sign the pact. But the process has been stalled by fraud allegation in the June 14 runoff vote pitting former foreign minister Abdullah Abdullah against former finance minister and World Bank official Ashraf Ghani Ahmadzai.

The government has deployed nearly 2,000 reinforcements since the Taliban offensive against checkpoints and government buildings in Helmand province began on Sunday.

The provincial governor, Mohammad Naeem Baloch, accused the Pakistani army of orchestrating the assault that began in Helmand's Sangin province and spread. Afghan authorities frequently blame neighbouring Pakistan of fomenting violence and backing Taliban attacks in the wartorn country.

Baloch said at least 135 people have been killed, including 30 policemen, 35 civilians and 70 Taliban fighters, since the start of the fighting. He also said 25 Afghan soldiers were killed or wounded, although he did not provide a breakdown.

"We are launching an operation to clear the area and very soon this area will be cleaned again," he told reporters.

An American soldier also was killed in an attack by enemy forces Wednesday in southern Afghanistan. The U.S.-led international coalition said provided no other details in its statement. But a U.S. official, speaking on condition of anonymity in exchange for releasing the information ahead of an official announcement, confirmed the soldier's nationality. The death brought to 11 the number of NATO service members killed so far this month, with eight of the fatalities being American. So far this year, 40 NATO troops have died in Afghanistan, including 29 Americans, according to an Associated Press tally.

The U.N. mission in Afghanistan said it was "deeply concerned" about the rising number of civilian deaths and injuries in Helmand province. It said it has documented at least 30 civilians killed and 35 others wounded in the district of Sangin alone. Citing health authorities, victims and witnesses it said the casualties were largely due to mortar strikes on civilian homes and civilians caught in cross fire and roadside bombings.

"All parties to the conflict are obliged to take all feasible precautions to protect civilians during military operations," the chief U.N. envoy in Afghanistan Jan Kubis said in a statement.

The Taliban have launched their annual spring offensive, promising to step up attacks against Afghan security forces in a bid to undermine the Western-backed government as foreign combat troops prepare to withdraw from the country by the end of the year.

The clashes in Helmand have special significance because the province was touted as a showcase of a major U.S. military offensive to drive out the militants in 2009. The fighting also comes less than two months after U.S. Marines left their posts in Sangin district on May 5.

The U.S.-led coalition said Wednesday that it was providing support to the Afghan national security forces in the area, including helicopter escorts for medical evacuations, intelligence, surveillance and reconnaissance assets and close air support.

In political developments, Ahmadzai reiterated during a press conference Thursday in Kabul that he would sign the bilateral security agreement "so we can secure help for our security forces."

Abdullah has accused electoral officials of engineering fraud and suspended his participation with the Independent Election Commission. Ahmadzai has called on him to rejoin the process and allow initial results to be released on July 2 in compliance with the IEC's official timetable. Final results are due on July 22 and the inauguration of the new leader was scheduled for Aug. 2.

Abdullah's supporters rallied in Kabul on Thursday, waving flags and chanting slogans against fraud.

___

Amir Shah reported from Kabul. Associated Press writer Lolita Baldor in Washington contributed to this report.

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