British troops fight four-hour battle with Taliban

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The Independent Online

More than 100 elite British troops today fought a furious four-hour battle at close quarters with the Taliban as they built checkpoints to keep the insurgents away from a local town.

A company of Royal Marines was ambushed at dawn in Helmand by rebels hiding in trenches and compounds just 40 metres away.

The force included marines from J Company of Plymouth-based 42 Commando and from Arbroath-based 45 Commando.

They were helped by Danish and Estonian troops and the Afghan National Army.

The fight began at 6.45am after the British force went to an area 5km from their base at Camp Price, near Gereshk, as part of Operation Bauxite, to install permanent vehicle checkpoints.

The security measures are being introduced at the request of locals to stop the Taliban coming into their town and also to keep the British base out of range of rebel mortars.

Up to 50 Taliban fighters attacked the multinational forces from irrigation ditches near the hamlet of Habibolah-Kalay.

During the ferocious battle, the Taliban leapt up in groups of four to open fire, so close the British could clearly see their trademark black turbans.

Major Ewen Murchison, the commander of J Company who led the battle, said: "That is one of the fiercest fights we've been in to date in terms of both the weight of fire that was coming our way and the proximity of the Taliban to my own troops.

"We went in at first light and the fire fight started at about 6.45am. We were under heavy small arms, RPG and mortar fire.

"There were 35 to 50 Taliban flying at us from numerous fire positions in and around the compounds and trenches employing their classic shoot and scoot tactics.

"During the course of the four hours I used the full range of military weapons available to me."

British troops responded to the Taliban ambush with small arms and machine guns, before resorting to mortars and artillery.

When this failed they deployed shoulder-launched anti-tank missiles at the enemy compounds and then called in air strikes by Apache helicopter gunships.

But the tenacious Taliban refused to surrender.

The battle climaxed with a raid by two Harrier GR7 jump jets, which dropped two 1,000lb bombs on the Taliban positions, finally ending resistance.

The noise from the laser-guided explosives shook the province and sent a huge plume of smoke into the sky that could be seen 5km away at Camp Price.

No one from the multinational forces was injured in the battle. It is not known how many Taliban were killed.

Maj Murchison, who was brought up in Bearsden, near Glasgow, but now lives in Plymouth, said: "You go through the escalatory process of using your direct fire machine guns.

"If they're still not having the effect then you obviously escalate through the use of indirect fire weapons like mortars and artillery.

"And if they're still not having the effect you resort to the dropping of bombs.

"If they are well-dug in in trenches, quite often you need a 1,000-pounder to have the desired effect to neutralise the target.

"If I fire shots at them and they run away that means I've achieved my objective. If they continue to fight then I have to kill them."

As the Taliban finally fled, the British forces stormed the compounds where they found a bomb factory and weapons cache.

Maj Murchison continued: "I conducted an incursion into one of the compounds and found AK variant weapons, RPG launchers, grenades and rudimentary IED bomb making equipment, batteries, wires and explosives, so a pretty good find from my perspective."

The company commander said they had been asked to build more checkpoints by local community leaders who have seen how security improved in their area after similar measures were introduced around Gereshk in November.

He said: "We're doing it in conjunction with the locals who had a shura (council) and said to us if we could help them build some checkpoints in this area this would decrease the influx of Taliban into Gereshk town centre by about 80%. That was their figure that they gave me."

More checkpoints were built in January as the British continue their campaign to push the Taliban further away from that part of north-east Helmand.

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