Fierce battle rages for Taliban stronghold
Royal Marines are among 6,000 troops fighting to seize a fiercely defended rebel headquarters that is key to the drug trade
Sunday December 9, 2007
More than 6,000 troops were engaged in intense fighting last night as British and American forces led a major offensive to seize the largest Taliban stronghold in Afghanistan.
In what military commanders described as a defining battle for the stability of Helmand province, around 4,500 Nato soldiers and Afghan National Army troops launched a series of attacks against a 2,000-strong Taliban force entrenched in the town of Musa Qala. Fighting was expected to last for days.
Colonel Richard Eaton, spokesman for the commander of Task Force Helmand, told The Observer: 'There has been determined resistance and continual fighting throughout the day, but we are making progress.' Amid reports of close-quarters battle, a number of British troops were reported injured, while a soldier with the Second Battalion the Yorkshire Regiment was killed, it was announced last night. His death takes the number of British personnel killed in Afghanistan since October 2001 to 86.
Eaton added: 'The aim of this operation is to win over the people of Helmand. The support of the people is the prize. They have a choice of living under a free democratic government or under the tyranny of the Taliban.'
The operation, which has been codenamed Mar Kardad, meaning 'snakepit', is the biggest mounted in Helmand since the deployment of Nato forces last year. For both sides Musa Qala has become deeply symbolic - it is the only urban centre that the Islamist group has been able to take and hold.
Among the forces threatening its perimeter defences last night were more than 1,200 British troops, including sizeable numbers from the 1st Battalion Scots Guards and 40 Commando, Royal Marines. Sources in Helmand described yesterday's fighting as 'heavy', with US airstrikes continuously targeting Taliban positions around the town. Twelve Taliban rebels were declared dead in one attack, including a commander believed to be responsible for attacks against international troops.
Under cover supplied by US aircraft, international forces and Afghan infantrymen advanced on Musa Qala from three directions across mountainous terrain. Military strategists have been planning an attack for months, aware that it is encircled by many well defended positions and minefields. Taliban anti-aircraft guns are understood to line ridges above the town, which has just one road in and one road out.
With the fighting showing no signs of ebbing, a Taliban claim that several armoured vehicles had been destroyed was dismissed. British defence sources said there had been 'steady progress'.
Earlier, hundreds of US soldiers were dropped from 19 helicopters, including troop carriers. They fought throughout Friday night, a tactic designed to let Afghan government troops, backed by British units, move in.
Hundreds of UK soldiers have been deployed from the British army's forward operating base, Camp Bastion, in Sangin, around 20km away. Military commanders speculated that, if the Taliban sustained large casualties, they might flee the town and head north into mountains. 'In the past, Taliban have withdrawn when faced with a large force in the field, but that remains to be seen,' said Eaton.
For the Taliban, Musa Qala has become a key centre of military and drug smuggling operations. For the international forces, ousting the enemy would take away their last major stronghold before the winter sets in, a period when the Taliban traditionally build up their reserves.
Despite the intensity of the fighting, the Taliban claim they are confident of resisting the offensive. Taliban commander Mullah Ahmadullah said: 'Morale is high... we will not lay down our weapons. We will fight to the death.'
Taliban fighters have been given orders to carry out attacks far more widely than Musa Qala to try to deflect attention from the town, but Nato sources say they have contingency plans to deal with that. Militants overran Musa Qala in February, four months after British troops left the town after a contentious peace agreement that gave security responsibilities to Afghan elders. Musa Qala has been in the control of Taliban fighters ever since. Situated north of Helmand, Musa Qala and the region around it have seen the heaviest fighting in Afghanistan this year. It is also in the middle of the opium poppy-growing belt.
This year has been the deadliest since the US-led invasion in 2001. More than 6,200 people have been killed in insurgency-related violence, according to an AP news agency tally of official figures.
As the battle raged in Musa Qala, Taliban militants in the neighbouring Sangin district were accused yesterday of hanging a 12-year-old boy in an orchard earlier in the week. According to provincial police chief Mohammad Hussein Andiwal, the boy was murdered because he had been giving information to the Afghan government and international forces, according to provincial police chief Mohammad Hussein Andiwal.
In a speech, Afghan President Hamid Karzai also accused the Taliban of suspending a 15-year-old boy from a ceiling and lighting 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 said.
4,500 international and Afghan army forces are attacking Taliban positions.
2,000 Taliban troops are defending Musa Qala.
1,200 British soldiers are involved in the offensive.
500 US troops took part in the initial attack against Musa Qala under cover of darkness.
19 helicopters - Apache attack and Chinook troop carriers - were used in the first drop of infantrymen.
12 Taliban have been confirmed dead.
Special report: Afghanistan
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