KANDAHAR, Afghanistan -- An estimated 700 foreign fighters are operating in a southern Afghan province where Taliban fighters overran a town earlier this month, the provincial governor said Sunday.
The foreign fighters from Chechnya, Uzbekistan and Pakistan are operating in three volatile areas of Helmand province, including Musa Qala, which Taliban fighters have controlled since Feb. 1, Gov. Asadullah Wafa said.
He said the government was conducting negotiations with tribal elders, urging them to pursuade the fighters to leave.
"We are trying our best to solve this issue in a peaceful way," Wafa told The Associated Press. "We don't want innocent people to die in the fighting. If the negotiations with the elders fail, then the government will conduct an operation against the Taliban."
Wafa said some 1,500 families had fled Musa Qala out of fear of coming clashes.
Lt. Col. Angela Billings, a spokeswoman for NATO's International Security Assistance Force, said the Afghan government was leading the negotiations in Musa Qala but that NATO was always ready for potential military action.
"We're here as a military force and we'll strike when the situation warrants it," she said.
Billings said foreign fighters are operating in Helmand but that the estimate of 700 sounded high.
A Taliban commander in the Helmand region, Mullah Qassim, said Musa Qala and the areas of Kajaki and Sangin were under Taliban control.
"There are thousands of Taliban there," he said by satellite phone from an unknown location. "If NATO and the government launch an attack, we are ready."
Wali Mohammad, a resident of Musa Qala, said NATO forces had moved into an area about 90 minutes away three or four days earlier. He said that two days ago the forces exchanged gunfire with Taliban militants.
Billings said she had no immediate information on troop movement near Musa Qala.
Mohammad said many villagers had fled and the town bazaar remained closed.
"We have to find a solution," he said. "Either they start the operation against the Taliban or they make a peace deal."
From June until September Musa Qala witnessed intense battles between Taliban fighters and British troops based in the fortified center. The fighting caused widespread damage to the surrounding town of about 10,000 inhabitants, most of whom fled.
British forces left Musa Qala in October after a peace agreement was signed between elders and the Helmand governor, with the support of British forces. According to the deal, security was turned over to local leaders, while NATO and Taliban forces were prevented from entering the town.
Taliban militants overran it on Feb. 1, destroying the government compound. Fighters claimed an airstrike last month that killed a Taliban leader broke the accord.
Meanwhile, a U.S. service member died of a gunshot wound Sunday in northern Afghanistan. Military authorities were investigating the death in Balkh province. Lt. Col. David Accetta, a U.S. military spokesman, said he couldn't release any other information.