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By Sayed Salahuddin and Peter Graff
KABUL (Reuters) - The Taliban said on Wednesday they had hoisted their flag in a remote district of Afghanistan where days earlier the militants had inflicted the deadliest battlefield casualties on U.S. troops in over a year.
In a statement put out on their website, www.shahamat.org, the hardline Islamists said they had raised their flag in Kamdesh district of eastern Nuristan province near the Pakistan border at a function attended by elders.
U.S. forces denied they had left the area, although they said they will leave eventually under plans announced before the attack.
In a separate statement marking the eighth anniversary of the U.S.-led invasion of Afghanistan that led to their overthrow, the militants said they posed no threat to the West but would continue their fight against foreign forces as long as they remained in the country.
The Taliban statements come at a time when Western officials warn that deserting Afghanistan could mean a return to power for the Taliban and the country could once again become a safe haven for al Qaeda militants, who could use it as a base to plan future attacks on Western countries.
U.S.-led forces with the help of Afghan groups overthrew the Taliban government during a five week battle which started on October 7, 2001, after the militants refused to hand over al Qaeda leaders wanted by Washington for the September 11 attacks on America.
On Saturday, hundreds of Taliban fighters stormed two remote NATO outposts near the Pakistan border that led to a fierce 13-hour battle. Eight American and at least two Afghan soldiers were killed, the worst losses for U.S. troops in over a year.
TACTICAL RISKS
U.S. forces have since said they killed more than a 100 fighters in what was described as a "complex" attack in a difficult mountainous area.
The fight showed the tactical risks U.S. troops may face in carrying out a new strategy ordered by their commander, General Stanley McChrystal, who is moving forces out of remote areas like Nuristan into more populated locations.
The attack was the deadliest for U.S. forces since nine were killed in a July 2008 battle in neighbouring Kunar province, which the U.S. military is investigating as a debacle that will teach its forces how to understand the demands of combat in Afghanistan.
In the past, when U.S. troops have left hard-fought areas, the Taliban have launched attacks to show strength and lay claim to them.
Colonel Wayne Shanks, a senior press officer for U.S. and NATO-led forces, said the withdrawal from the area was still planned but had not taken place yet.
"I can guarantee you we have not left Nuristan. We are there. We are doing the same operations we have been doing," he said.
U.S. forces were still present in the two outposts that had been attacked on Saturday, although they would be abandoned eventually, Shanks said.
He said he could not comment on whether forces had been reduced at any specific location because that would risk helping fighters find areas of weakness to attack.
TALIBAN "READY FOR LONG WAR"
In a separate statement on their website, the Taliban said it had no intention of attacking any Western country but remained committed to battling what they called occupying foreign forces.
"We had and have no plan of harming countries of the world, including those in Europe ... our goal is the independence of the country and the building of an Islamic state," they said.
"Still, if you (NATO and U.S. troops) want to colonise the country of proud and pious Afghans under the baseless pretext of a war on terror, then you should know that our patience will only increase and that we are ready for a long war."
U.S. President Barack Obama has said defeating the militants in Afghanistan and Pakistan is a top foreign policy priority and is evaluating whether to send thousands of extra troops to the country as requested by McChrystal.
In a review of the war in Afghanistan submitted to the Pentagon last month, McChrystal said defeating the insurgents would likely result in failure unless there was a change in strategy and more troops were sent.
There are currently more than 100,000 foreign troops in the country, roughly two-thirds of whom are Americans.
Violence in Afghanistan has reached its worst levels in the eight-year-old war with Taliban insurgents spreading their attacks into previously secure areas.
Afghans are also awaiting the outcome of a presidential election that has been marred by widespread fraud more than six weeks after going to the polls.
A U.N.-backed watchdog overseeing the fraud investigation into the August 20 vote said on Wednesday it had altered its ballot-counting rules, ditching a previous plan criticised for favouring President Hamid Karzai.
The new rules, the Electoral Complaints Commission said, took into account the possibility one candidate may have disproportionately benefited from fraud, a finding that would be necessary in order for Karzai to be forced to face a second round.
Preliminary results gave Karzai 54.6 percent of the vote. If the fraud investigation reduces his share below 50 percent, he would face a run-off against his main challenger, former foreign minister Abdullah Abdullah.
For that to happen, the commission would have to find fraud overwhelmingly benefited Karzai, which the president denies.
The Washington Post on Wednesday reported confidential United Nations' data showed the official vote count in some provinces exceeded the number of voters by 100,000 or more.
(Additional reporting by JoAnne Allen in WASHINGTON; Writing by Jonathon Burch; Editing by Sugita Katyal)
(For more Reuters coverage of Afghanistan and Pakistan, see: http://www.reuters.com/news/globalcoverage/afghanistanpakistan)

Reuters