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Battle for Taliban stronghold intensifies

By Tom Coghlan in Kabul and James Burleigh
Last Updated: 2:40am GMT 12/12/2007

The battle for Musa Qala has intensified with British and Afghan troops probing the edges of the town but holding back from a final assault as thousands of civilians remain inside.

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  • With fighting also spreading to many parts of Helmand, Afghan officials claimed that two of the most important Taliban commanders in the province were captured trying to escape Musa Qala.

    Coalition troops prepare for assault on Musa Qala
    Coalition troops have been involved in fierce fighting

    British military sources said that a number of insurgents had been captured but had not yet been identified.

    Colonel Richard Eaton confirmed that there had been casualties in "fierce fighting" over the weekend but that British forces had advanced to the edge of the town.

    He said that Taliban fighters had attacked other areas of the province to relieve pressure on Musa Qala.

    "There have certainly been skirmishes throughout the area of Sangin [to the south of Musa Qala]," he said.

    "The Taliban are trying to create pressure in other areas to relieve the pressure we are exerting on Musa Qala. There were a couple of our bases in the area of Sangin attacked this afternoon. They were repulsed."

    Speaking from inside the town, Taliban commander Mullah Ahmad Muslim claimed: "We have launched attacks in Sangin and in Sarwan Kala. In Musa Qala we have taken 15 prisoners from the Afghan National Army. We have orders to attack the British everywhere."

    Taliban fighters arrive in force in Musa Qala
    Taliban fighters arrive in force in Musa Qala

    With a population of around 20,000 and one of the biggest bazaars in Helmand, the operation to take Musa Qala is the largest military assault that British forces have launched in Afghanistan.

    At least 300 people fled the town over the weekend but many remain.

    The Afghan government claimed to have captured Mullah Rahim Akhund, the Taliban governor for Helmand and Mullah Mateen Akhund, the district governor for Musa Qala, as they fled the town.

    Taliban sources however fiercely denied the claims that their commanders had been taken. "I am almost crying, I am laughing so much," the Taliban’s chief spokesman Qari Yousef Ahmadi told The Daily Telegraph by telephone.

    "This is just lies. Do you think these are people who are easy to capture?"

    "Right now it is going according to plan," said Nato commander General Dan McNeill. "As to how tough the fighting will or will not be, that is up to the insurgents. If the insurgent wants to fight then the Afghan forces going into Musa Qala will be up to the task."

    Battle for Taliban stronghold intensifies
    Key areas in Afghanistan fighting

    British and American forces are to perform the "break in" operation to Musa Qala, but the final assault will be left to the Afghan Army.

    There are signs that some people have decided to stay because of the fear of looting when the town falls.

    "Outside I can hear the sounds of explosions. We are quite scared," Haji Mohammad Rauf said by telephone from his home just outside Musa Qala. "Most of the families have fled the area, but I’m afraid that if we leave the soldiers will loot all the things from our home."

    In the days after British troops cleared the town of Sangin, which lies south of Musa Qala, in April, there was systematic looting by pro-government police and militias.

    The battle for Musa Qala, which involves some 3,000 British troops, began at 4pm on Friday afternoon as British and Afghan forces advanced in three separate columns from the south, west and east of the town supported by several hundred vehicles and dozens of attack helicopters and ground attack aircraft.

    But it was a feint, to distract attention from a helicopter borne landing by a battalion of the US 82nd Airborne Division from Task Force Fury to the north of the town.

    The operation is expected to last several more days.

    Sgt Lee Johnson
    Sgt Lee Johnson: father of two

    Roadside bomb victim was training Afghans army

    The British soldier who died in the fight for Musa Qala was killed by an explosive device - suspected to be a mine - which blew up beside his vehicle shortly before 10am on Saturday. Another soldier was seriously injured in the same vehicle.

    Sgt Lee Johnson, a father of two from Stockton-on-Tees, planned to marry in August, his fiancée Lisa said yesterday.

    He was serving with the Operational Mentoring and Liaison Team, training the Afghan National Army.

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