JALALABAD: More than 20 Afghan policemen and dozens of Taliban insurgents were killed on Friday when hundreds of fighters ambushed a police and military convoy in eastern Afghanistan, officials said.
The five-hour battle in the Sherzad district of Nangarhar province occurred after the convoy was attacked as it returned from an operation to rescue a politician being threatened by the Taliban.
"It was an intense battle and insurgents used heavy and light weapons to attack the convoy of our security forces in Sherzad district," Nangarhar deputy police chief Masoom Khan Hashemi told AFP.
"We lost 22 of our brave policemen, but the militants have been taught a lesson of our strength, their attack was completely repelled and 60 of their fighters were killed," Hashemi said, adding a further 16 insurgents were killed during the rescue of the politician.
The account was confirmed by provincial spokesperson Ahmadzia Abdulzai.
"The military and police launched a successful operation in the district killing 16 Taliban. On their way back they were ambushed in which 60 Taliban were killed. Unfortunately 22 policemen were also martyred in the fighting," he said.
The Taliban, who have been waging a bloody decade-long insurgency against the Western-backed Kabul government, claimed only five of their fighters and 84 government soldiers were killed in the battle.
With the US-led coalition due to withdraw its 100,000 combat troops by the end of 2014, the Afghan police and army are increasingly taking responsibility for tackling the insurgency that erupted after the Taliban were ousted in 2001.
The Taliban insurgents in the meantime have stepped up their attacks in areas where foreign troops have withdrawn or are in the process of withdrawing.
Afghanistan's 350,000-strong security forces are suffering a steep rise in casualties as the NATO combat mission winds down and Afghan authorities try to impose stability ahead of the presidential election due in April.
The vote, which will chose a successor to long-time leader President Hamid Karzai, is seen as a key test of whether the US-led international military intervention in Afghanistan has been a success.
The long war has become increasingly unpopular in the US and other coalition countries such as Britain and Germany, with national leaders now hoping their troops can withdraw rapidly after a credible Afghan government takes power.
"If the election goes well and produces a result that is widely accepted in the country, most other of Afghanistan's challenges are going to be satisfactorily met," US special envoy James Dobbins said in Kabul on Friday.
"The election is the most important item on Afghanistan's agenda and it's the most important item on the US's agenda even though we are just observers."
Karzai, who came to power soon after the Taliban were ousted, has repeatedly said that he will leave office in line with the constitution and has vowed to work towards a fair election of a new president.