KABUL, (Reuters) – Afghan and NATO forces recaptured the Taliban stronghold of Musa Qala on Tuesday, but three other southern districts remained under the control of insurgent fighters, an Afghan Defence Ministry spokesman said.
Afghan troops moved in towards the centre of Musa Qala on Monday in a bid to retake the Taliban stronghold in the heart of the world’s main opium-producing belt. “Musa Qala is freed. Our troops are now inside the town and the bazaar. The Taliban fled in four directions,” ministry spokesman Zahir Azimi told a joint news conference with the NATO-led ISAF forces in Kabul.
The only sizeable town held by the Taliban, Musa Qala in the north of Helmand province has been symbolic for both sides in the conflict and its capture is a major military boost for the Afghan government and its Western backers.
Azimi said the operation was continuing to clear the remnants of Taliban fighters inside the town. “We have inflicted heavy casualities during the operation. Tens of the (Taliban) bodies are still in the battlefield,” he said, adding that three districts in Helmand province were still under Taliban control.
Thousands of Afghan, British and U.S. troops surrounded Musa Qala in an operation that began on Friday. Hundreds of Taliban had pledged to defend the town, but faced air strikes, artillery and steady assault from the Afghan and foreign forces. Two British soldiers have been killed in the fighting and hundreds of civilians have fled the area. It is ISAF’s policy not to release Taliban casualty figures.
The Taliban struck back near the town of Sangin, further south in Helmand, a mainly desert area sliced through by lush, fertile farming land on the banks of the Helmand River and its tributaries. “The enemies of peace and stability and terrorists could not stand against the Afghan and NATO troops and considered their defeat for sure,” an Afghan Defence Ministry statement said. “After defeat in Musa Qala, the enemies put pressure on Sangin district and began a fierce offensive using heavy weapons there, in the last two days the brave soldiers from Afghan National Army defied the enemy offensive in that district.”
British troops pulled out of Musa Qala in October 2006 after coming under sustained Taliban attacks and left the town under the control of tribal elders who pledged to keep the insurgents out; a deal criticised by U.S. military commanders.
The Taliban then seized Musa Qala in February, embarrassing NATO commanders who pledged to take it back.
During their rule of Musa Qala, the Taliban executed a number of people accused of spying for the government or foreign forces.
Musa Qala also became the major centre for heroin production in a province that produces nearly half the world’s supply of its raw material, opium, Afghan and international officials say.