KABUL, May 22 (Reuters) - Afghan and U.S. forces have killed 34 militants, almost half of them in air strikes, and made one of the country's largest drug hauls during an operation in southern Afghanistan, the U.S. military has said.
Almost 15 tonnes of narcotics including opium, heroin and morphine were seized over the course of the operation, which started on Tuesday, along with supplies of poppy seeds and drug refining products, the military said in a statement issued late on Thursday.
The operation, which included air strikes that killed 16 militants, was aimed at securing the Loy Cherah Bazaar in Marjeh city, a narcotics processing hub and militant stronghold in Helmand province. Afghanistan produces more than 90 percent of the world's opium, most of it in the Taliban's southern heartland. U.S. military officials have estimated the opium trade provides between $80 million and $400 million a year to the Taliban.
"The only other narcotics discovery comparable in size to the Marjeh operation was a 260-ton stockpile of hashish with an approximate street value of $350 million ... in Kandahar Province in July 2008," the statement said.
The operation also uncovered weapons, a large amount of bomb-making materials, and two "war rooms" stocked with maps, communications equipment and night-vision goggles, it said. Civilians were escorted from the bazaar and there have been no reports of civilian casualties from the operation, the statement said.
Civilian deaths from U.S. and NATO air strikes have become a source of anger among Afghans towards the nearly 80,000 foreign troops in the country fighting Taliban militants. The insurgency has been gaining strength in recent months, with violence now at its highest level since U.S. and Afghan forces ousted the Taliban from power more than seven years ago. U.S. commanders have rushed thousands of reinforcements to Afghanistan in what Washington considers a make-or-break year for a war it now views as its main security priority.
(Editing by Paul Tait)