BRITISH troops stormed into Musa Qala yesterday as Taleban fighters fled their fortress town.
Soldiers from the 2nd Yorkshire Regiment, the Green Howards, pushed into the city with the Afghan army, as president Hamid Karzai revealed many local insurgents had swapped sides ahead of the overwhelming British assault.
He said: "The Afghan Taleban, they met with me. They said that they wanted to swap sides, and that is what has happened."
Gordon Brown, the Prime Minister, has pledged more reconstruction aid for the country so that locals are not tempted to go back to the Taleban.
British troops breached the Taleban stronghold after five days of intense artillery bombardment, backed up by fighter jets and helicopter airstrikes, and destroyed dozens of key insurgent positions.
But they stopped short of the town centre, afraid the place is rigged with mines, bombs and booby traps, which have already claimed three soldiers' lives.
Mr Karzai claimed Afghan fighters begged him to be allowed to defect after witnessing atrocities against innocent civilians in the town.
Mullah Abdul Salaam, a former Taleban commander who controls thousands of men around Musa Qala, was reported to be in secret talks with the Afghan government to swap sides and fight with the British. But news of his alleged negotiations leaked, provoking a rift in Taleban ranks. Al-Qaeda and other foreign fighters flocked to Musa Qala after it fell to the Taleban ten months ago, when a controversial British deal to hand it over to tribal elders backfired.
Speaking at a press conference with Mr Brown yesterday, the president said a local resident he met almost three months ago appealed to him to liberate the town, which prompted him to ask the British to launch a joint offensive with Afghan forces.
More than 2,000 British troops, including Scots Guards, Household Cavalry and Royal Marines from 40 Commando, have been involved in the operation. British troops set up a cordon around the town while crack American paratroopers from the so-called Taskforce Fury smashed a route through Taleban trenches, and "dug-in" with defensive positions.
Last night the Taleban admitted they had abandoned Musa Qala in the face of almost certain defeat. But the British denied reports the town had fallen completely. British troops on the outskirts of the town were last night "consolidating their positions".
At least two British soldiers have died in the operation. Trooper Jack Sadler, 21, from the brigade reconnaissance force, was killed by a roadside bomb in the area on 5 December and Sergeant Lee Johnson, 33, was killed by a mine on Saturday.
A third soldier, whose nationality has not been released, was killed by a mine on Sunday.
The town, in the heart of northern Helmand's poppy belt, has been a problem for the Afghan government and international forces battling to stamp Mr Karzai's authority on the lawless region.
Dozens of Taleban were killed during the operation, and at least two children died in crossfire.
Ahmad Wali, a Taleban fighter from Musa Qala, insisted morale remained high. He said: "I left with some fighters for a break. We are happy to go back and fight, but we will listen to our commanders."
BROWN HAILS COURAGE OF UK TROOPS
GORDON Brown rallied British troops on a visit to Afghanistan yesterday.
Addressing around 150 members of 40 Commando Royal Marines at Camp Bastion, the Prime Minister paid tribute to their fight against the Taleban in Musa Qala, 70 miles away.
He also pledged UK support for Afghanistan in fighting the Taleban "for the next few years", underscoring that the commitment to the war-ravaged country would not be short-term.
Mr Brown sa
id: "This is one of the most difficult of tasks; this is one of the most testing of times. When I speak of courage, I speak of men and women here who have shown huge bravery in really difficult circumstances. I know this weekend in Musa Qala some of you have been doing a very important job in clearing the Taleban from that area.
"I know that the work you are doing today and in the next few days is important for the whole future in Afghanistan. If we can succeed there, we can move forward events in Afghanistan in favour of a more peaceful future for this country."
The Prime Minister also promised to follow up the victory in Musa Qala with cash for reconstruction projects in the area to ensure locals were not lured back into Taleban hands, pledging support for social and economic development.
Mr Brown is set to unveil government strategy for Afghanistan in the Commons tomorrow.
The full article contains 778 words and appears in The Scotsman newspaper.