LASHKAR GAH, Afghanistan, (Reuters) – Afghan, British and U.S. troops were fighting in a major operation on Saturday to capture the Taliban’s biggest stronghold in Afghanistan.
Musa Qala in the southern province of Helmand is the only sizeable Afghan town controlled by the Taliban. Capturing Musa Qala would give Afghan government and foreign troops a major boost as the harsh winter and a lull in fighting sets in.
U.S. troops moved close to the town by helicopter on Friday to begin the attack as British troops approached by land. “We are now involved in an advance that is effectively kicking the door in to Musa Qala,” said Lieutenant Colonel Richard Eaton, British forces’ spokesman in Helmand.
Afghan army units followed up the assault on several hundred rebels in and around the town.
Twelve insurgents and two children had been killed in the assault, Afghan Defence Ministry spokesman Zahir Azimi told a news conference. Between 200 to 300 civilians had fled the area after they were informed in advance of the operation, he said. There were no casualties among the NATO-led and U.S.-led coalition forces, coalition forces said. But a Taliban commander in Musa Qala said the insurgents had destroyed two NATO armoured vehicles and killed many foreign troops, without suffering any casualties.
Thousands of Taliban fighters were fighting to defend the town, the commander, Mullah Qasam told Reuters by satellite telephone. The Taliban frequently exaggerate foreign casualties.
The U.S.-led coalition force said a “precision-guided munitions strike” had killed several Taliban insurgents including a militant commander in Musa Qala on Friday.
Afghan President Hamid Karzai said Musa Qala residents had requested government forces eject the Taliban. “A man who lost 19 members of his family in a bombardment in Helmand province came to me and said ‘the people of Musa Qala are expecting you to save them’,” Karzai said in a speech. “The man from Helmand pleaded with me to set them free from the Taliban and also other fighters from Pakistan and other countries who brutalise and oppress the people.”
Karzai said the Taliban suspended a 15-year-old boy from a ceiling and lit a gas stove underneath him, burning him alive. “Does anyone believe a human being can be so savage as to burn alive a 15-year-old boy?” he asked.
British troops pulled out of Musa Qala in October last year after coming under sustained Taliban attack in a truce criticised by U.S. military commanders that handed control of the town to tribal elders. The Taliban then seized Musa Qala in February.
U.S.-led and Afghan forces toppled the Taliban for refusing to give up al Qaeda leaders after the Sept. 11, 2001 attacks on the United States.
But foreign forces had only a limited presence in Helmand allowing the Taliban to regroup and take control of large parts of the mainly desert province till around 7,000 British troops moved in some 18 months ago.
Since then, there has been fierce fighting as British, Danish and Estonian ISAF troops, and Afghan forces have gradually wrested control of the major towns back from the Taliban. But the Taliban still control parts of the fertile Helmand River valley that runs through the desert and have launched hit-and-run attacks and suicide bombs elsewhere to destabilise the province and weaken government control.
The Taliban relaunched their insurgency two years ago with guerrilla attacks in the south and east and suicide bombings on cities across the country aimed at convincing Afghans their government and its Western allies cannot bring security.