ARGHANDAB, Afghanistan — Taliban fighters destroyed bridges and planted mines after overrunning villages outside southern Afghanistan's largest city, Afghan officials and witnesses said. Hundreds of farm families fled while the Afghan army rushed in troops.
Afghanistan's Ministry of Defense said Tuesday that 300 to 400 militants — many of them foreigners — took over the Arghandab region 10 miles northwest of Kandahar.
The offensive Monday came three days after a Taliban attack on Kandahar's prison that freed several hundred insurgents.
Afghan officials, fearing a major battle, told residents to leave the area.
However, NATO's International Security Assistance Force and the U.S.-led coalition offered a strikingly different picture of the Arghandab region than the one portrayed by Afghan officials. The U.S.-led coalition said in a statement that it had sent a patrol through Arghandab that met no resistance.
"Recent reports of militant control in the area appear to be unfounded," the statement said.
Troops patrolled for about five hours on the west side of the Arghandab River — where Afghan officials say the militants are — but didn't make any contact with insurgents, said Capt. Christopher Colster, a coalition spokesman. The troops also didn't report seeing fleeing civilians, he said.
"In talking to our folks they do not have any imminent concern that Kandahar is about to fall to the Taliban," U.S. Defense Department press secretary Geoff Morrell said in Washington.
NATO aircraft, meanwhile, dropped leaflets in Arghandab telling residents to stay in their homes — even though the Afghan Defense Ministry was telling them to leave.
"Keep your families safe. When there is fighting near your home, stay inside," NATO spokesman Mark Laity quoted the leaflet as saying.
Despite that message, more than 700 families — perhaps 4,000 people or more — fled Arghandab, said Sardar Mohammad, a police officer at a checkpoint on the east side of the Arghandab River.
A Taliban commander, Mullah Ahmedullah, called an Associated Press reporter Tuesday and said about 400 Taliban moved into Arghandab from the Khakrez district to the north. He said some militants released in Friday's prison break joined the assault.
"They told us, 'We want to fight until the death,' " Ahmedullah said. "We've occupied most of the area and it's a good place for fighting. Now we are waiting for the NATO and Afghan forces."