Thursday, June 25, 2009

British troops 'clear Taliban stronghold'

Troops conducting one of the British military's largest operations in Afghanistan have cleared a Taliban stronghold in the south and are encouraging villagers to return, an officer said Thursday.

About 12 British and US Chinook helicopters dropped 350 British troops into the Babaji area of the southern province of Helmand at midnight Friday, in the largest British-led air assault operation in Afghanistan.

"The operation continues to be successful and we are now encouraging the locals to return to the area to benefit from the improved security and freedom from Taliban control," British Lieutenant Colonel Nick Richardson told AFP.

Babaji is about 12 kilometres (eight miles) north of Lashkar Gah, the capital of Helmand -- a vast desert province that shares a porous border with Pakistan across which militants are said to enter the Afghan insurgency.

The British troops working with Afghan forces had "pushed the Taliban out of one of their strongholds," Richardson said.

There had been some engagements that had caused fatalities to the insurgents but none to the troops, he said, without giving figures.

The Afghan defence ministry reported Wednesday that troops had killed 25 "terrorists" in days of operations in the area.

Richardson said Afghan locals had known about the operation and many had left ahead of the troops.

"The local people had been warned by a variety of means that there was an operation about to happen to allow to them to avoid the fighting," he said.

Helmand is perhaps the most intense battlefield in Afghanistan's insurgency which has grown apace since the hardliners were removed from government in a US-led assault in late 2001.

Attacks are at a record high in Afghanistan with a growing number of Afghan and international security forces on the ground, which the military says is stirring up insurgent nests.

The violence has led the United States to announce a new strategy in Afghanistan which includes deploying 21,000 troops, mostly into the south where forces have previously been unable to hold areas after driving out insurgents.

The security forces have meanwhile redoubled operations ahead of the August 20 presidential elections, which authorities fear could become a target of the insurgents.

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