Eighty Taliban die after ambush

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Days after Taliban fighters overran Musa Qala a US commander pledged that Western troops would take it back. Nine months later, the town is still Taliban territory, a symbol of the West's struggles to control the poppy-growing south.

But a string of recent battles around Musa Qala, won overwhelmingly by American Special Forces, signal a renewed US focus on the symbolic Taliban stronghold.

An Afghan army commander said yesterday that US and Afghan forces have taken over the area around the town and that Afghan commanders are holding talks with Musa Qala's tribal leaders to persuade them to expel the Arab, Chechen and Uzbek foreign fighters who roam its streets alongside the Taliban militants.

US Special Forces soldiers accompanied by Afghan troops killed about 80 fighters during a six-hour battle outside Musa Qala on Saturday, the latest in a series of increasingly deadly engagements in Helmand province — the world's largest poppy-growing region and the front line of Afghanistan's bloodiest fighting this year.

There have been at least five major battles in the area since 1 September, including Saturday's fighting, and Special Forces troops have killed more than 250 militants, according to coalition statements.

"Musa Qala is part of the overall concept here, denying the Taliban the ability to control northern Helmand," said Major Chris Belcher, a spokesman for the US-led coalition. "Our goal is to stop them from accomplishing that ... We're in Musa Qala and we're going to stay there."