Taliban announces spring offensive

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The Independent Online

The Taliban has announced the beginning of its spring military offensive against the US-led coalition, a day after a new Pentagon report claimed that the militants' fighting spirit was low after sustaining heavy losses on the battlefield.

In a two-page statement, the Taliban said that, starting tomorrow, it would launch attacks on military bases, convoys and Afghan officials, including members of the government's peace council, who are working to reconcile with top insurgent leaders.

"The war in our country will not come to an end unless and until the foreign invading forces pull out of Afghanistan," said the announcement from the leadership council of the Islamic Emirate of Afghanistan, which is what the Taliban calls itself.

Senior officers with the US-led coalition said yesterday that the Taliban - aided by the al-Qa'ida-linked Haqqani network - plans to conduct a brief series of high-profile attacks, such as suicide bombings, across the country in a display of power as fighting gears up with the warmer weather.

Coalition spokesman Lieutenant Colonel John Dorrian said the Taliban plans to use the spate of violence as a "propaganda ploy" to try to demonstrate its relevance and create the perception of momentum despite recent setbacks.

The Pentagon report said the insurgents' momentum had been "broadly arrested" and their morale had begun to erode. Hundreds of insurgent leaders have been killed or captured and, since last July, 700 former Taliban members have officially reintegrated into Afghan society and another 2,000 insurgents are in various stages of the process.

The Taliban, known for its resilience, said insurgents will target "foreign invading forces, members of their spy networks and other spies, high-ranking officials of the Kabul puppet administration... and heads of foreign and local companies working for the enemy and contractors".

The Taliban ordered its fighters to pay "strict attention" to protecting civilians during the spring offensive. A recent UN report said about three-quarters of the estimated 2,777 civilians killed in Afghanistan last year died at the hands of insurgents, not international forces.

Also today, the coalition released initial findings on Wednesday's attack at Kabul airport when a veteran Afghan military pilot opened fire, killing eight US troops and an American civilian contractor who had been training the nascent Afghan air force.

The shooting was the deadliest attack by a member of the Afghan security forces, or an insurgent impersonating them, on coalition troops or Afghan soldiers or policemen. Seven of the eight US airmen killed were commissioned officers.

The gunman was severely wounded before leaving the room where he staged the attack and was found dead in another part of the building, according to initial findings of the incident. The Nato trainers were armed with weapons and ammunition and the gunman appeared to be carrying two weapons, the coalition said.

According to base regulations, all members of the military are required to clear their weapons when entering a coalition compound and remove ammunition magazines from their weapons. If the trainers heeded that regulation, they would have had to reload before defending themselves.

The Taliban claimed responsibility for the attack, but the coalition said it has uncovered no evidence to suggest the insurgency was behind it.

"At this point in the investigation, it appears that the gunman was acting alone," the coalition said. "Beyond that, no Taliban connection with the gunman has been discovered. However, the investigation is still ongoing and we have not conclusively ruled out that possibility."

Defence Ministry spokesman General Mohammad Zahir Azimi declined to comment today, saying the joint investigation by the Nato Training Mission-Afghanistan and the Afghan government was still under way.

NATO says Taliban's announcement of their spring military offensive in Afghanistan is a sign of the insurgents' desperation over recent setbacks.

The NATO official said on condition of anonymity in keeping with regulations that the insurgents will use their spring offensive to try to undermine the transition process, but that it actually is "a sign of their impotence and desperation."

NATO claims Taliban have recently suffered setbacks such as high casualties and the loss of traditional strongholds.