Nato claims crucial victory in Musa Qala but will it last?

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The Independent Online

Nato has declared that the strategic southern Afghan town of Musa Qala has officially fallen after British and Afghan forces marched into the heart of the former Taliban stronghold.

Shortly after midday yesterday British soldiers pushed into the centre of the abandoned town, with hundreds of Afghan troops in support.

"Today the Afghan National Army restored freedom and democracy to the people of Musa Qala by removing the Taliban and their foreign fighters," said Brigadier General Gul Aqa Naibi, the Afghan commander.

According to their own claims, the Taliban had 2,000 fighters entrenched inside the town, but after weeks of air strikes, they abandoned their positions on Monday, leaving in trucks and on motorbikes ahead of an overwhelming British-led assault.

The town's recapture was considered critical to the wider strategy of squeezing Taliban operations in Helmand province in the coming winter months. Musa Qala had taken on a huge symbolic importance for the international forces. Des Browne, the Defence Secretary, described it as "iconic".

The operation to retake Musa Qala ends 10 months of Taliban control which has been a constant embarrassment to international forces trying to stamp the Afghan government's authority on the lawless region. As long as the Taliban held control, Musa Qala, in the heart of Helmand's poppy belt, stood as a symbol of its strength in the province.

But while Nato and the Afghan government were declaring that the Taliban resistance was over and the commander of British forces in Helmand province, Brigadier Andrew Mackay, arrived by helictoper to congratulate his men on "a job well done", Taliban fighters remain in the region. Moreover, the harsh lesson of recent history is that a standard Taliban tactic is to melt away in the face of overwhelming military firepower only to regroup in safety in the mountains, for a renewed onslaught at a future date.

Nato sources also fear that the Taliban may have left a deadly legacy of bombs, booby traps and suicide bombers hidden among the civilians still there.

"We anticipate over the next 24 to 48 hours or so there will still be some pockets of resistance," said a Nato military spokesman, Major Charles Anthony.

Soldiers from the 2nd Yorkshire Regiment, the Green Howards, led hundreds of Afghan troops into the heart of the old insurgent fortress after four days of air strikes and heavy artillery destroyed their defences.

There was no fighting in the town centre, but die-hard fighters continued to take potshots at Nato patrols on the edge of the built-up areas.

"There was no real resistance inside the town," added Major Anthony. "But there were some sporadic engagements in the outskirts. One company came into contact with the Taliban and there was an exchange of fire."

No international soldiers were hurt, and it is not known if any Taliban were killed. At least four civilians were killed during the assault, two of them children whose car was caught in a burst of crossfire.

The Taliban have had 10 months to rig Musa Qala with explosives, and they vowed yesterday to fight back, despite their resounding defeat.

The town had attracted scores of al-Qa'ida and Chechen fundamentalists set on fighting Western troops. Many of them fled with local insurgents to nearby towns and to remote rural settlements. It is not known how many stayed behind.

More than 2000 British troops were involved in the operation, backed up by almost 300 American special forces who smashed a path through the Taliban trenches. The American paratroopers, from Taskforce Fury, are now on a mission to find and capture any Taliban who are still there.

Musa Qala had been in Taliban hands since February after they reneged on a British-backed deal to hand it over to local elders.

The Afghan President, Hamid Karzai, said he asked the British to launch the assault after hearing reports of brutality in the town, including the case of a 15-year-old boy who was burnt alive by people "acting in the name of the Taliban". He also claimed that Afghan Taliban fighters had swapped sides ahead of the assault.

Military deaths

Year/UK/US

2001 -/12

2002 3/49

2003 -/48

2004 1/52

2005 1/99

2006 42/98

2007 39/111

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