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Senior Afghan Taliban commander killed in air strike

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Senior Afghan Taliban commander killed in air strike

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LASHKAR GAH, Afghanistan (Reuters) - A top commander of the Taliban was killed in Afghanistan's southern province of Helmand in a joint operation by Afghan and U.S. Special Forces, Afghan officials and Taliban members said on Sunday.

Abdul Manan, who was in charge of Helmand province for the insurgent group, was killed along with 29 others by an air strike on Saturday while he was meeting local commanders and fighters in the Nawzad district, Helmand provincial governor Mohammad Yasin Khan said.

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His death was confirmed by Taliban spokesman Zabiullah Mujahid and by the U.S. military, which said Afghan forces had gone on the offensive with U.S. support, notably through precision air strikes to push the Taliban to accept peace talks.

"They're going to have trouble intensifying the fight when their fighters and leaders are under constant assault. Peace talks are the only solution," Col Dave Butler, spokesman for U.S. Forces in Afghanistan, said in an emailed statement.

The death of Mullah Manan, who commanded Taliban fighters as they steadily increased their control over Helmand in the years following the end of most international combat missions in 2014, was seen as a major success by Afghan officials.

"He was the most senior Taliban commander in the south and his death will have an overall impact on security," one senior security official in Kabul said.

The report of Manan's death comes as both the Western-backed security forces and the Taliban have pushed to gain the momentum at the same time as efforts have stepped up to find a peaceful settlement to end the 17-year war in Afghanistan.

Although contacts have started between U.S. special envoy Zalmay Khalilzad and Taliban representatives, there has been no let up in the fighting, with both sides aiming to build a favourable position in advance of any peace talks.

(Reporting by Mohammad Stanekzai, Hamid Shalizi and Jibran Ahmad in Peshawar; Writing by James Mackenzie; Editing by Raissa Kasolowsky and Susan Fenton)

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