Backed by helicopters firing missiles, hundreds of NATO and Afghan forces hunted Taliban militants in villages outside Kandahar on Wednesday, killing dozens of insurgents.

NATO reported only light resistance in Arghandab district, a river valley filled with fruit groves that offer militants bountiful defensive positions. The Afghan army says up to 400 militants had poured into the area, just 10 miles northwest of Kandahar city, the Taliban's former power base.

U.S. and NATO officials have repeatedly played down the scope of the Taliban push. But the swift military response – 700 Afghan soldiers flew to Kandahar on a moment's notice – and the fighter aircraft dedicated by NATO suggest that keeping Arghandab free from militants is a priority.

Arghandab is considered a gateway to Kandahar. If militants can gain a foothold there, attacks become easier on the city.

Elsewhere in Afghanistan, militants killed six NATO soldiers and wounded 10. Just last week Defense Secretary Robert Gates called attention to the worsening situation in Afghanistan, noting that U.S. and allied combat deaths here in May surpassed the monthly toll in Iraq for the first time.