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US-led troops killed 55 militants including three senior commanders after rebels ambushed a patrol with rockets near the eastern Afghan-Pakistani border, the coalition said yesterday.

A civilian father and son were killed by coalition forces elsewhere in eastern Afghanistan while several Taliban died in air strikes in the insurgency-hit south, officials said.

The bloodshed comes amid the deadliest phase of an insurgency launched by the Islamist Taliban after their ouster by US-led forces in late 2001, with seven foreign soldiers killed over the weekend.

A coalition spokesman said three days of fighting erupted in the Zerok district of eastern Paktika province on Friday after an insurgent attack on a patrol.

"The coalition patrol received rocket-propelled grenade and small-arms fire from extremist forces. The coalition responded with a combination of small-arms fire and air support," a coalition statement said.

Around 55 militants were killed, 25 wounded and three captured, it said. "Three key extremist leaders" were among the dead while patrols were bringing in details of further militant casualties, it added.

In southern Helmand province, Afghanistan's main opium-growing region, US and Afghan forces called in air strikes after a Taliban attack on Sunday, killing "several militants", another coalition statement said.

Five more Taliban were killed in an Afghan-led operation in central Ghazni province the same day, the Afghan defence ministry said. Two other rebels trying to place a mine on a road were captured, it added.

The announcements came hours after around 200 protesters took to the streets in the Khogyani district of eastern Nangarhar province after a father and son were allegedly killed by gunfire from US-led soldiers.

District governor Haji Zalmai Khan said US-led and Afghan troops killed a militant found planting a roadside bomb overnight, but that a coalition base then fired cannons on a suspected rebel hideout.

"One of the cannon shots landed on a house in the nearby village and killed a father and son, who were civilians not Taliban," he told AFP.

The coalition forces denied causing any civilian casualties.

The ultra-orthodox Taliban have stepped up their insurgency in Afghanistan in the past two years and there has been a further upsurge in violence this month, posing a major challenge for US-backed President Hamid Karzai.

Six foreign troops were slain in bombings in Afghanistan on Saturday, making it the deadliest day for international soldiers in the war-torn nation this year.

A US-led soldier and six Afghans died in a suicide bombing on Friday.

The Taliban scored a propaganda victory when suicide bombers attacked the main jail in the southern city of Kandahar on June 14, allowing more than 1,000 prisoners to escape including hundreds of militants.

Days later Afghan and Nato troops launched a major operation to drive out rebels massed in villages near Kandahar. Afghan officials said 56 rebels died.

The violence has meanwhile damaged relations with Islamabad, with Karzai saying in the wake of the prison escape that Afghanistan would be justified in striking militant hideouts in Pakistan.

In Herat, a suicide car bomb exploded near a convoy of international forces in western Afghanistan on Monday, killing five Afghan civilians and injuring at least 19 others, officials said.

It could not be immediately definitively confirmed if any foreign soldiers were injured in the bombing in western Herat province's Shindand district, which was claimed by Taliban militants.

"I confirm there was a suicide car bomb against a three-vehicle international forces' convoy. The casualty toll has risen -- five killed and 19 injured," La'al Mohammad, the district chief, told AFP.

All the dead were men and some of the wounded -- also all male -- were in a critical condition, Mohammad said, adding that the bombing took place in a bazaar on the highway between Shindand and Herat city.

Afghan army general Jalandar Shah Behnam put the injured toll at 25 and said one of the dead was a woman, adding all the victims were civilians.

Most of the foreign troops based in Herat are Italian nationals. The Nato-led International Security Assistance Force (ISAF) confirmed the bombing against its troops but said only there were no casualties "so far".

Taliban spokesman Yousuf Ahmadi, talking to AFP from an unknown location, said his militant movement carried out the attack.

"One of our mujahedeen (holy warriors) carried out a suicide bombing against foreign forces in Shindand," the rebel spokesman said, claiming, "several soldiers were killed."

The bombing was the latest in a growing insurgency being waged by the Taliban, whose regime was ousted from power in a US-led invasion in late 2001.

Meanwhile, Afghan authorities paraded two alleged Pakistani militants before the media in chains and handcuffs on Monday in a fresh attempt to highlight cross-border infiltration by insurgents.

The governor of southern Kandahar province said the two men were would-be Taliban suicide bombers, but one of the Pakistanis told reporters he had only entered Afghanistan to fight US-led and Nato-led forces.

The public display comes just over a week after Afghan President Hamid Karzai sparked a major diplomatic row by threatening to launch attacks on Islamist militants based on Pakistani soil.

"I came to Afghanistan for jihad (holy war) but am not a suicide bomber," the alleged militant, identifying himself as Ali Ahmad in his 20s from the Pakistani city of Quetta, told reporters at the press conference in Kandahar.

He said he was a student at a religious school in Pakistan and was encouraged to fight in Afghanistan by a fellow student who managed to escape arrest.

The second Pakistani national, his hands and feet tied with chains and introduced as Abdul Zahir, did not speak at the news conference, which was hosted by provincial governor Assadullah Khalid.

The two were arrested on Saturday in the Afghan border town of Spin Boldak along with their Afghan guide as they were on their way to the troubled Zehri district of Kandahar, governor Khalid said.

"The two Pakistani suicide bombers along with their Afghan guide were arrested two days ago. One of them, Ali Ahmad, has confessed," Khalid said, despite Ahmad's denial.

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