Afghan and NATO troops storm Taliban stronghold

Afghan and NATO troops storm Taliban stronghold Allison LampertPublished: Friday, December 07, 2007KANDAHAR AIRFIELD, Afghanistan -- The Afghan National Army, supported by international coalition forces, launched an operation Friday to recapture Musa Qaleh, a Taliban stronghold in southern Afghanistan's Helmand province.

Wing Cmdr. Antony McCord, a NATO spokesperson, said coalition forces, including British, Danish and Estonian troops, were taken by helicopter to the edge of the town. "This operation will continue for the next few days," he told journalists at Kandahar Airfield.

Afghan and NATO troops surrounded the town and launched air strikes to dislodge Taliban rebels who had been in control for 10 months, the Afghan Defence Ministry said. "Musa Qaleh is surrounded by our forces now and NATO air forces are striking some targets in the district," ministry spokesman Gen. Mohammad Zahir Azimi told AFP.

The coalition forces, along with the ANA, have been conducting operations in the north of Helmand province, where Musa Qaleh is located, since the beginning of November. ISAF, the International Security Assistance Force, had already dropped leaflets over the town of Musa Qaleh, warning Taliban forces that they were being watched.

Citing local sources, Pajhwok Afghan News reported this week that thousands of families were preparing to leave the town in anticipation of a battle.

Musa Qaleh resident Mohammad Khan said he was stocking up with food in case the bazaar closed during the operation.

"I am not that scared of the actual fighting, but more of the day-to-day military manoeuvres that signal upcoming fighting," he said.

Shopkeeper Abdul Hadi said he was moving his goods to a safer place in case of burning and looting during the fighting, which had happened after previous clashes.

"I don't want my goods to be burnt and looted again," Hadi said.

The ability to recapture Musa Qaleh from the Taliban would be a symbolic victory for NATO, observers say. In November, the Al-Jazeera network reported that the Taliban were patrolling the streets of the town in a vehicle that once belonged to the Afghan National Police.

Also significant is the leadership role the fledgling Afghan army is playing in the operation.

Taliban insurgents stormed Musa Qaleh in Afghanistan's main opium-producing area in early February, disarming police and taking over the district administrative centre from a tribal council.

In late March they hanged three men in the centre and entrances of the town, accusing them of spying for British forces.

The takeover followed a controversial deal about four months earlier which saw British forces withdraw on the request of tribal elders who said they would keep out the rebels and maintain the peace.

Ongoing clashes between Taliban and coalition forces over the district have already cost lives on both sides. On Dec. 4, British Trooper Jack Sadler was killed and another two soldiers injured as a result of an explosion during a patrol in southern Afghanistan. Mullah Ikhalas, a senior Taliban commander, was killed in a Dec. 2 strike in the province, coalition forces said.

Azimi stressed that the operation to retake Musa Qaleh, 130 kilometres northeast of the main southern city of Kandahar, was launched at the request of the elders.

A Taliban commander has said there are 2,500 armed fighters in Musa Qaleh, according to the institute for war and peace reporting, which had a reporter in the town in late November.

No schools are open in the district, the hospital is closed and the district government office has been demolished, it says in a report on its website.

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