Taliban flee to desert as Nato storms stronghold

British troops in Afghanistan yesterday entered an insurgent stronghold targeted in a major Nato offensive unopposed after Taliban fighters abandoned their defensive positions.

Soldiers just "kept going" when attacks they faced outside the town of Saidabad suddenly stopped. Around 1,600 residents of the town, about one-fifth of the population, had remained, but there were no signs of fighters.

Operation Tor Shezada – "Black Prince" in the Dari language – is the first of a series of campaigns through which Nato commanders seek to inflict a military defeat on the insurgency as politicians in the West clamour for troops to be pulled out. Intercepted Taliban messages prior to the advance indicated the insurgents, facing hundreds of British and Afghan troops descending from the north, and US Marines to the south, had decided to live to fight another day. It is believed that some of the 180 fighters, who had been carrying out raids against the Americans in Marjah and the British in Nad-e-Ali, have headed west into the "Dasht" desert area.

Troops from the Somme Company, 1st Battalion the Duke of Lancaster's Regiment, accompanied by Afghan troops, held a public meeting in one of the town's compounds and local people were promised construction projects. The elders said their main concern was security, and, in particular, IEDs (improvised explosive devices) pitted around the area, many of them recently planted to stop the British and Afghan advance. The district governor for Nad-e-Ali, Habibullah, is expected to visit Saidabad soon and local elders would be asked to present a list of urgent public works.

Military commanders are fully aware, however, that the lack of overt armed opposition does not mean the Taliban had gone away. A series of localities "liberated" in the past subsequently come under attacks after the Taliban had been able to reorganise.

Soldiers moved along farmland and waded through waist-deep irrigation ditches to reach the town after dark. Major Darren Newman, officer commanding Somme Company, said: "It appears the presence of overwhelming forces... has effectively meant the insurgents fled before we arrived."

On the road to Saidabad, locals were circumspect about what the future may hold. Ayub Din, a farmer, said: "We do not know whether the Taliban will return. They have in the past, so we shall wait and see."