A senior Taliban commander and two other insurgents were killed in a firefight with NATO and Afghan forces in western Afghanistan, the military alliance said Sunday, as the government named a chief of a new council tasked with talking to insurgent groups.
The NATO and Afghan forces moved in after intelligence sources tracked the first commander, identified as Mullah Jamaluddin, as he traveled in western Badghis province's Murghab district Saturday. A gunbattle erupted and the Taliban leader and two militants were killed, NATO said.
Provincial spokesman Sharaf Uddin Majidi confirmed NATO's account.
"Jamaluddin was a very important person who received support from much of the local community," Majidi told The Associated Press. "His death will certainly lead to increased peace and stability."
Afghan President Hamid Karzai announced Sunday that the recently formed "peace council" had selected former President Burhanuddin Rabbani as its chairman. In a speech to the council, Karzai praised their choice, saying Rabbani's leadership would be "good for Afghanistan."
Rabbani was one of a group of mujahideen leaders who fought the Soviets in the 1980s. He was Afghanistan's president between 1992 and 1996, when he was ousted by the Taliban.
The 70-member panel, which formally began work on Thursday, was created by Karzai to have a structure in place to guide talks with the Taliban and other insurgent groups.
"How much longer can we wait for foreigners to establish security for us? How much longer can we witness explosions in our mosques and see our leaders killed?" Rabbani said as he accepted the position. "Peace will come when we cooperate."
Publicly, the Taliban have said they won't negotiate until foreign troops leave the country, yet many Taliban leaders have reached out directly or indirectly to the highest levels of the Afghan government. There have been no formal negotiations yet between the Afghan government and the Taliban, only some contacts and signals from each side, according to Karzai's spokesman, Waheed Omar.
Another Taliban leader, Ajmal Agha Jan, also died Saturday in southern Helmand province's Marjah district after he pulled a pistol on a joint force that raided his compound, NATO said in a statement.
Six senior Taliban were killed in operations in Badghis and neighboring Faryab province over the past two weeks, NATO said.
"These operations are significantly reducing Taliban influence throughout the region and returning it to the people of Afghanistan and the legitimate government they elected," said U.S. Army Col. Rafael Torres.
Taliban spokesman Qari Yousef Ahmadi last week accused NATO of engaging in a propaganda campaign to demoralize the insurgents' moral by inventing Taliban leaders and alleging they were killed or captured.
"Most of the commanders' names NATO are using don't even exist," Ahmadi told The Associated Press. "This is just a game from the American side, nothing else."
The operations that killed the Taliban commanders came the same day four Italian troops died in a roadside bomb blast in western Farah province. Insurgents detonated the explosives as a 70-vehicle convoy passed by, then strafed the Italian force with small-arms fire.
The deaths brought to 24 the number of NATO forces killed this month. At least 2,012 NATO service members have died since the U.S.-led invasion of Afghanistan on Oct. 7, 2001, according to an AP count.
Violence continues unabated throughout much of Afghanistan. The focus of the U.S.-led war, which entered its 10th year last week, has been on the south, but coalition troops are increasingly fighting resilient militants in the west, east and north.
Britain announced Saturday that kidnapped British aid worker Linda Norgrove died in a failed rescue operation by NATO forces.
Norgrove, 36, died Friday in eastern Kunar province when captors detonated a bomb as NATO forces attempted to free her, an official said. She was abducted in an ambush on Sept. 26 along with three Afghan colleagues who were later released. Six kidnappers also died in the rescue attempt.
Associated Press writer Amir Shah contributed to this report.