Tuesday, February 9, 2010

Refugees flee to capital of Helmand to avoid huge Nato Afghan offensive

The Times Onlines

As British troops count the hours until the start of the largest Nato offensive since the US-led invasion of 2001, Lashkar Gah, the capital of Helmand province, is witnessing the arrival of a grim procession of frightened refugees desperate to escape the battle.

Nato forces have urged civilians to flee Marjah — one of the most heavily populated parts of rural Helmand — as more than 15,000 British, Afghan and American troops make their final preparations for Operation Moshtarak — “Togetherness”.

However, refugees reaching the city have claimed that as much as 90 per cent of the population are trapped in the war zone by belts of improvised bombs, which have rendered the road network impassable.

With his two-year-old son clasped to his chest, Haji Mohammed Manan said yesterday that he had walked eight hours through flooded opium fields with his wife and seven children to avoid the danger on the roads.

“During the day and during the night, the Taleban are laying landmines everywhere,” Mr Manan said. “We had no choice. We had to walk through the water.”

Western commanders have taken the unusual decision to publicise the impending operation to give civilians the chance to leave the area.

While commanders expect advancing troops to face thousands of roadside bombs, less clear is whether the Taleban will fight or, more likely, melt away and mount a guerrilla war.

“What we are seeking to do is to make sure people are safe. That’s why we’ve gone out of our way to explain what we were trying to do and when we were going to do it,” Brigadier James Cowan, the commander of British Forces in Helmand, said yesterday.

Afghan officials said that bombs and booby traps would slow the advance into Marjah and that the initial push could be expected to last about three weeks. Gulab Mangal, the governor of Helmand, has broadcast to people in the district advising them to stay away from Taleban positions if they cannot escape the area entirely.

Daoud Ahmadi, the governor’s spokesman, said: “The Taleban have laid lots of landmines, making it difficult for people to leave. We have to clear the landmines. Then we have to be careful about the civilians.”

Marjah was originally reclaimed from the desert by American engineers who built irrigation canals as part of an aid project in the 1950s. The terrain, accessed by narrow tracks and criss-crossed with deep ditches, is easy to defend and difficult to attack. One local journalist based in Lashkar Gah told The Times that a mood of pessimism and apprehension reigned among local people, despite Nato’s concerted effort in recent months to avoid civilian casualties.

“The Nato forces go to an area and drive out the Taleban. A few weeks later they are back and the fighting goes on,” he said, declining to be named. “The proportion of people who think that the foreign forces are good is very small.”

A spokesman for the International Committee of the Red Cross said that its staff had already given emergency aid to 600 displaced families in Lashkar Gah last week, and it was planning to help 420 families this week.

So far, in what commanders refer to as a “shaping operation” before the start of the main offensive, British and US troops have mounted probing attacks around Marjah from more securely held territory in Nad Ali.


  1. Well we hope all go's well for all.the Taliban stated they would not face the forces there.but do hit and run.dress like civilians and shack there hands as they come in.

  2. IED's have caused the most British casualties yet this offensive has been widely publicised allowing even more to be laid.
    This is total madness.
    Our main concern must be the safety of our own troops not Afghan civillians.