Afghan and British security forces have seized £150m worth of heroin allegedly due to be used to fund weaponry for the Taliban.
The 15-tonne haul was recovered from two trucks on consecutive days following intelligence gathered by the Afghan intelligence service, the National Directorate of Security (NDS).
According to Afghan officials the location of the narcotics came from information supplied by prisoners arrested during the recent Operation Moshtarak and interceptions of insurgent telephone conversations.
The amount taken is equal to 45 per cent of last year's total seizures, three tonnes short of the record and the claimed total in the street value of the drugs is a significant portion of the £400m the Taliban is believed to make from the opium crop every year.
The operation also resulted in six arrests by the Afghan anti-narcotics force, which is being trained by Western agencies. In another investigation, a courier was caught leaving a hotel in possession of 12kg of pure heroin crystals this week, suggesting opium is still being processed in the area to a high purity level, said officials.
There is increasing evidence that narcotics' cartels are processing poppies into opium ready for sale inside Afghanistan instead of sending the crop out to Pakistan and central Asia as had been the case until recently. Meanwhile, Afghan President Hamid Karzai heard repeated complaints from residents of Marjah, the Taliban stronghold which had been seized by thousands of US, Nato and Afghan troops in Helmand.
Mr Karzai, during a visit to the town, declared: "Today, I'm here to listen to you and hear your problems". The elders, at a shura, or public meeting, took up the offer to express their concern about corruption among former Afghan government officials; how schools in Marjah were turned into military posts by international forces; and claims that shops were looted during the military offensive.
Seated on a cushion on the floor of the mosque, Mr Karzai nodded as men in turbans and sequined hats held forth on the problems they had faced, both from years of government neglect and heavy fighting in recent weeks. The elders told Mr Karzai they wanted Afghan troops – not international forces or local policemen – searching houses. The elders, some gesturing to express their frustration, also said they wanted clinics and schools, and were losing patience with the central government's inability to provide services.
A soldier from A Company 4 Rifles, part of the 3 Rifles Battle Group, was killed in a firefight near Sangin in Helmand Province yesterday. The Ministry of Defence also named the two soldiers killed in Afghanistan on Friday and Saturday as Rifleman Jonathon Allott and Rifleman Liam Maughan, both of of 3rd Battalion the Rifles.
Back in the UK, the Conservatives accused the Government of cutting by half the number of new patrol vehicles to be purchased for troops in Afghanistan to replace vulnerable Snatch Land Rovers.
Officials travelling with Prime Minister Gordon Brown to visit UK forces in Helmand yesterday indicated that an announcement was expected within weeks of £100m for 200 new vehicles which will offer better protection to troops.
But shadow defence secretary Liam Fox raised questions about the order, which he said was originally intended to deliver 400 vehicles. "We have been waiting for years for replacements to the Snatch Land Rovers," he said.
"There is one very curious element about this, because the public tender that was put out was for 400 vehicles to replace Snatch. The Prime Minister yesterday said it would be 200. What happened to the other 200?"
The "soft-skinned" Snatch Land Rovers have been blamed by troops for many of the deaths caused by roadside bombs planted by Taliban insurgents in Afghanistan. The new British-built vehicles, which are due to be delivered to the front line by late 2011, are said to offer world-leading armour and high manoeuvrability.