44 bombs found in Taliban raids
An operation to clear a Taliban heartland has uncovered a haul of weapons including 44 bombs.
The operation in Helmand province in Afghanistan also closed down 18 factories used for making improvised explosive devices (IED) and saw two bomb-makers arrested.
A Taliban command compound - seeded with deadly IEDs rigged to detonate the building and contents if the compound was raided - was shut down.
Nearly 1,000 British soldiers joined the operation, planned and led by Afghan security forces, to clear insurgents from the Yakchal valley in the Gereshk area of Helmand province.
As the soldiers returned to their bases today, Afghan brigadier general Sheren Shar said it showed the progress his troops had made.
He said: "The Afghan National Security Forces are ready to provide security for the Afghan people.
"The message to those who are fighting against our government is to come and join the peace process, as this can be the only solution."
The operation comes as coalition troops prepare to withdraw by 2014 and Afghan president Hamed Karzai called for them to step back to main bases by 2013.
Brigadier Patrick Sanders, commander of the British-led Task Force Helmand, said the operation demonstrated the readiness of Afghan forces to take on an increased role in the battle against the Taliban.
He said: "They have demonstrated their capacity to operate anywhere, with the insurgents powerless to stop them, and that is a real testament to their skill and professionalism."
Operation Now Roz, or "New Day" in Dari, was launched over the weekend and comes just before the Afghan new year celebrations.
The three-day operation saw Afghan National Army (ANA) troops sweep southwards over the weekend, with the police following behind to search and clear more than 200 compounds.
Along with the cache of IEDs, they also found seven bomb-making factories, 145kg (320lb) of homemade explosives, 18 manufactured mines, 18 pressure-plate switches and 12 other charges.
Five weapon caches with mortar barrels and ammunition, five rocket-propelled grenades, long-barrelled weapons and grenades were seized.
Lieutenant Colonel Bill Wright is the commanding officer of 2 Rifles, normally based in Palace Barracks, Belfast.
He said the ANA had set a "staggering" pace in a number of operations throughout the winter.
Lt Col Wright said: "This operation involved over 800 ANA and 200 Afghan uniformed police, and is the most complex, largest and most dangerous that we have done by a huge margin.
"That they have the confidence to conceive, plan and lead such a large-scale operation into an area that the insurgents perceived as their safe haven and had heavily defended, is clear proof of their increasing confidence and capability.
"They have been hugely impressive."
Gereshk is Helmand's second city and making it safe is seen as a priority for the coming year.
It is hoped Afghan forces will be able to take charge of security in the area over coming months.
British troops from across Task Force Helmand contributed to the operation, but large-scale involvement came from the Queen's Royal Hussars, the 1st Battalion the Yorkshire Regiment, and 2nd Battalion the Rifles.
They were also joined by troops from 3rd Battalion the Yorkshire, which lost five men in the blast which killed six.
Soldiers from the 1st Battalion the Princess of Wales's Royal Regiment, the Queen's Dragoon Guards and 1st Battalion the Yorkshire Regiment also played a part.
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