Nato troops kill up to 80 militants in Helmand

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The Independent Online

Up to 80 Taliban fighters are reported to have been killed by Nato troops in a battle near a Helmand town where a peace agreement was signed recently with tribal chiefs, paving the way for British troops to withdraw from the area.

The deal at Musa Qala, under which local communities pledged to provide security and keep out the Taliban, was seen as a possible template for Nato forces to withdraw from other frontline flashpoints.

Some senior Afghan officials, however, had complained that the Taliban had engineered the Musa Qala agreement to regroup and rearm, and say their scepticism has been vindicated by the latest round of fighting.

Afghan police told Nato forces a number of insurgents had gathered around 10 miles south of the town. Soon afterwards a 150-strong Danish contingent serving alongside British forces came under attack and called on air support. The ensuing battle, during which helicopter-gunships and warplanes pounded Taliban positions, lasted for more than four hours.

Afghan security forces had told Nato that insurgents have increased their activity in the past few weeks in the area between the Musa Qala and Nawzad districts, a Nato spokesman said. He added that although the fighting had taken place near Musa Qala, it was not actually in the town itself, the location covered in the agreement between British troops and the local elders.

"The elders ... have extraordinary influence, but that influence doesn't spread across the whole district, just mostly in the town," the spokesman said. "If anything, the deal in Musa Qala has freed up more of our troops to conduct the kind of reconnaissance patrol that was so effective in this engagement."

Nato sources stress that in their views the tribal elders are genuine and the agreement was the result of their disenchantment with the Taliban, the Musa Qala agreement has sharply divided Afghan opinion.

Mustafa Qazemi, who fought the Taliban as a former Northern Alliance commander and is now an MP maintains: "The Musa Qala project has sent two messages: one, recognition for the enemy; and two, military defeat. This is a model for the destruction of the country and it is just a defeat for Nato, just a defeat."

The governor of Helmand, Mohammed Daoud, one of the key figures behind the deal, insistedit was the civilians of Musa Qala who made the first attempt at peace. "They made a council of elders and came to us saying, 'We want to make the Taliban leave Musa Qala'," he said. "At first we did not accept their request and we waited to see how strong the elders were."

The newly appointed police chief of Musa Qala, Haji Malang, said the Taliban and the police had agreed not to encroach on each other's territory. "They have their place which we cannot enter and we have our place and they must not come in."

President Hamid Karzai, without whose sanction the deal could not have been completed, said: "I trust everything these elders say." But he acknowledged that two reports of intimidation and murder in the area needed investigation.

Nato has launched an inquiry into the deaths of eight Afghans and injuries to 15 others after British Royal Marines opened fire after a suicide bomb attack in Kandahar. Protests by local people and Afghan officials continued to grow in the city yesterday as a number of Afghans died overnight from their injuries.

The marines opened prolonged fire after their convoy, returning to Camp Bastion in Helmand, had been rammed by a bomber on Kandahar's airport road.

The Ministry of Defence in London said the marines, from 45 Commando, had acted in self defence after civilian vehicles attempted to chase and ram their vehicles after the initial blast and had ignored all warnings.

Afghan police said searches of cars which the marines say were intended to conduct a second suicide strike had failed to find any explosives or weapons.

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