KABUL, Afghanistan — Insurgents armed with machine guns, mortars and rocket-propelled grenades mounted a fierce assault on a remote, relatively lightly manned U.S. outpost in northeastern Afghanistan Sunday, killing nine American soldiers.
It was the largest loss of U.S. troops' lives in a single incident in Afghanistan since June 2005, when 16 Americans died in the same province when a helicopter was shot down. The province, Kunar, is a swath of forbidding, mountainous terrain that borders Pakistan.
U.S. Defense Secretary Robert Gates was briefed early Sunday on the assault, according to Pentagon spokesman Geoff Morrell. Morrell described the casualties suffered by U.S. and Afghan forces as "significant," but noted that they had repelled the attack.
Coalition military officials said insurgents fired from homes and a mosque in the village of Wanat, near the American outpost. The NATO-led International Security Assistance Force accuses Taliban militants of routinely using civilian areas as a staging ground for attacks, placing those who live there at great risk. It was not known whether villagers were present during the attack or if they had fled.
Fifteen Americans and four Afghan soldiers were wounded.
Although the attackers were driven back, the toll they exacted was heavy. The outpost was manned by 45 American troops and 25 Afghan National Army soldiers, officials said. That would mean that one in five of the U.S. defenders were killed and one-third of them were wounded.
The insurgents were believed to have suffered heavy casualties in the assault on the Kunar outpost, the NATO coalition said in a statement. The well-organized attack began before dawn and raged for hours before tapering off late in the day, military officials said.
The attack was unusual in its audacity. Taliban guerrillas rarely make sustained frontal assaults on the better-armed coalition forces, preferring hit-and-run attacks and roadside bombs.
But militants do make occasional attempts to overrun outposts, particularly if their surveillance indicates there are relatively few troops inside, or they are aware that terrain or location might make it difficult for Western forces to conduct air strikes or bring in reinforcements.
It would be considered an enormous battlefield coup for the insurgents to capture a coalition base, particularly if they were able to take captives and seize weaponry.
Although Afghanistan's south is the traditional heartland of the Taliban insurgency, attacks have surged in the east over the past few months. NATO has linked the increase to peace talks by Pakistani authorities with Taliban militants who shelter in tribal lands on the Pakistan side of the border.
Sunday's deaths accelerated a rapidly rising fatality count among coalition troops in Afghanistan. During May and June, the 65 deaths among U.S. and other NATO troops killed in Afghanistan outnumbered U.S. military fatalities in Iraq.
At least 473 members of the U.S. military have died in Afghanistan, Pakistan and Uzbekistan as a result of the U.S. invasion of Afghanistan in late 2001, according to the Defense Department.
Also Sunday, another coalition soldier died Sunday in Helmand province in southern Afghanistan, where most of the Western troops are British.
In Uruzgan province, at least 24 people died and dozens of others were hurt when a suicide attacker targeted a police patrol in a crowded marketplace, local officials said.
Taliban militants executed two women in central Afghanistan late Saturday after accusing them of working as prostitutes on a U.S. base.
At least 40 militants were killed following an attack on Afghan and U.S.-led coalition forces in Helmand province, the coalition said in a statement.
Information from the Associated Press was used in this report.