KABUL, Afghanistan - NATO forces fought two large groups of militants crossing the border from Pakistan, and as many as 150 insurgents were killed, the alliance said Thursday. A Taliban spokesman called the report "a complete lie."
The fighters were attacked with ground fire and airstrikes in eastern Afghanistan, NATO said. Gen. Murad Ali, the Afghan army regional deputy corps commander, said the insurgents had traveled into Paktika province with several trucks of ammunition.
A NATO statement said "initial battle damage estimates" indicated that as many as 150 fighters were killed. Ali said more than 50 fighters were killed late Wednesday and early Thursday. Mohammad Zahir Azimi, the spokesman for the Ministry of Defense, estimated the toll at 80.
It was not clear why there was such a disparity in the estimates.
As is common with violence in Afghanistan, independent confirmation of the death toll at the remote battle site was not immediately possible.
Dr. Muhammad Hanif, who claims to speak for the Taliban, said in a text message to an Associated Press reporter in Pakistan that the figure of 150 dead was "a complete lie."
"The Americans want to boost morale of their troops while making such claims," the message read.
Azimi said one Pakistani fighter was wounded and captured. Rocket-propelled grenade launchers and machine guns were also recovered, he said.
Taliban militants last year launched a record number of attacks, and an estimated 4,000 people died in insurgency-related violence, the bloodiest year since the U.S.-led coalition ousted the Taliban regime in late 2001.
The fight in the Bermel district of Paktika province is the first major engagement of 2007 and appeared to be the largest battle since an operation killed more than 500 suspected Taliban fighters in the Panjwayi district of Kandahar province in September.
NATO did not say how it estimated that 150 fighters were killed. In early December, NATO said it had killed 70-80 fighters in the southern province of Helmand but days later said that only seven to eight were killed.
Meanwhile, NATO forces called in airstrikes on Taliban positions during a clash in the village of Gereshk in Helmand province Wednesday, said Ghulam Nabi Mulahkhail, a local police chief.
Among those killed was a local Taliban group commander identified as Mullah Faqir Mohammad, the police official said. One Afghan soldier was wounded and evacuated to a NATO medical facility, the alliance said.
Troops recovered weapons and ammunition in the militant compound, it said.
In Pakistan, Gen. David Richards, senior commander of NATO's 32,000 troops in Afghanistan, said after his meeting Thursday with top Pakistan and Afghan army commanders in Islamabad that "we are confident that this conflict is winnable."
"There are problems ... but we are confident that we can deal with them," he said, referring to the cross-border insurgency by the Taliban.
He compared the porous Pakistani-Afghan border with the problems British troops faced in Northern Ireland with the IRA before the Good Friday peace accord of 1998.
"That is an 84-mile border, and not even in that campaign we managed to fully control it," Richards told reporters after the tripartite meeting meant to coordinate military activities in the region.
The Pakistani-Afghan border is 1,550 miles long, "with mountains that are very hard to control," he said.
On Thursday, thousands of mainly ethnic Pashtun tribesmen demonstrated against Pakistan's use of biometric controls, such as digital scans of fingerprints, to screen people crossing the border.
About 6,000 tribesmen rallied in the Afghan border town of Waish, near where Pakistan on Wednesday opened its first biometrics control system as a measure against cross-border movement by militants.
The protesters say the tighter border controls will divide people instead of stopping militants.
"If Pakistan really wants to stop terrorism, it should eliminate the bases for terrorists," Fida Mohammed Achakzai, a Pashtun leader, told the rally.
Pakistan has also announced plans to build barbed-wire fences and plant land mines along some sections of the border.