Taliban heroin factory destroyed in night assault

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The Independent Online

Sixteen British soldiers have been killed and dozens more injured since Operation Panther's Claw began last month – marking a new offensive against the Taliban.

Against a backdrop of questions over the war in Afghanistan, the Ministry of Defence (MoD) last night attempted to explain the reasons behind the operation that has led to so many British casualties.

Keen to focus on results rather than the body count, the MoD revealed how a dramatic British night-time assault against a Taliban stronghold in Helmand province has uncovered a large factory set to produce hundreds of kilograms of heroin.

Six helicopters took 140 troops from the 3rd Battalion the Royal Regiment of Scotland deep into enemy-held territory – Babiji, north of Lashkar Gah. Within hours the soldiers discovered a drugs factory with 750kg of a base chemical used to create heroin and 5kg of a morphine derivative. Profits from the heroin would have been used to buy weapons, according to the MoD. Afghan police were brought in and the drugs were destroyed on the spot.

The past week since the drugs bust has seen the men of the 3 Scots fight their way through what officials describe as "rugged terrain in the searing heat" in the face of vehement opposition. On Friday, they linked up with the Light Dragoons, who have been involved in heavy and prolonged fighting over the past fortnight against what officials describe as compounds "riddled" with Taliban fighters.

Details of the secret mission, part of the Panther's Claw offensive, emerged last night, two days after the death toll rose yet again. Rifleman Aminiasi Toge was killed in an explosion while on a foot patrol near Gereshk on Thursday.

Coalition forces aim to secure the area between Gereshk and Lashkar Gah and restore confidence among local people in advance of next month's presidential elections. Another goal is to enable reconstruction and aid projects to get under way in the region.

British soldiers have been greeted by locals, who have "increasing confidence" in coalition forces, according to the MoD. Officials claim stories are emerging of Taliban stealing entire food supplies. One 16-year-old boy told soldiers he had been tortured by the Taliban after they caught him making a telephone call and accused him of being a spy.

Lieutenant Colonel Nick Richardson, spokesman for Task Force Helmand, said: "The insurgents have controlled this territory for some time, with thousands of people living under their oppressive regime. The enemy are standing and fighting back vehemently. It isn't easy, and it won't happen overnight, but we are clearing the area and we are seeing locals, who had been living in fear of the Taliban, starting to return."

He said that reconstruction teams are moving into cleared areas and added: "It is sometimes difficult to convey exactly what progress is being made. But this operation is an important leap forward for the future of Helmand. We are taking the fight to the enemy and we are winning."

Some 3,000 British soldiers are involved in Panther's Claw, and thousands of US soldiers are conducting similar operations south of Lashkar Gah. Afghan soldiers are also involved.

The offensive began last month, when hundreds of soldiers from the Black Watch captured three crossing points along the Nahr-e-Burgha canal, 10 miles north of Lashkar Gah, after an airborne assault. Afghan soldiers and police helped to build a checkpoint there, called "Hadrian's Wall", in an attempt to allow locals to return to the deserted bazaar and resume life without fear of the Taliban. The Welsh Guards subsequently captured 13 crossing points over the Shamalan canal.

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