Source AP ©

18 militants killed in south Afghan battles

Eighteen suspected militants were killed during two operations in southern Afghanistan, including seven foreigners." Six died when a stash of ammunition exploded in the east, officials said Thursday.

The battles in Helmand province on Wednesday involved both foreign troops and Afghan forces. A fight in Garmsir district killed 13 suspected militants, including the seven foreigners, the Interior Ministry said.

The ministry didn't give their nationalities. However, Pakistanis fighting with the Taliban as well as Chechens and Arabs associated with al-Qaida periodically crop up among casualties in Afghanistan.

Another five militants died in a joint operation in Helmand's Sangin district, the ministry said.

In the eastern province of Paktika, a local government leader, four policemen and a driver were killed when ammunition they were going to confiscate exploded, said provincial spokesman Ghamia Khan.

It wasn't immediately clear if the explosion was an accident or if the cache had been rigged, Khan said. An investigation was under way.

Violence in Afghanistan has spiked in recent weeks. More than 1,800 people have died this year in insurgency-related violence, according to an Associated Press count based on U.S., NATO and Afghan officials.

Meanwhile, 200 people demonstrated in the province of Farah in support of an outspoken female lawmaker suspended by parliament this week over comments she made comparing parliamentarians to animals.

Malalai Joya, 29, told The Associated Press on Thursday that she has been suspended until the end of parliament's session in 2010, but that she was waiting for Afghanistan's Supreme Court to make a final decision as to whether her ouster is valid.

Lawmakers said Joya violated a parliament rule that bars them from criticizing one another.

"We condemn these criminals in parliament who are working against Malalai," said Angama Sadat, a lawmaker from Farah. "Malalai is the elected representative of thousands of Afghans from Farah."

Joya has repeatedly referred to members of parliament as criminals, warlords and drug lords. Many former commanders involved in factional fighting in the 1980s and 1990s now hold positions in parliament or government.

Human Rights Watch on Wednesday said the parliament "should immediately reinstate" Joya, calling her a defender of human rights and a powerful voice for Afghan women.

"The article banning criticism of parliament is an unreasonable rule that violates the principle of free speech enshrined in international law and valued around the world," said Brad Adams, Asia director at Human Rights Watch.

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