UK troops carry out major Afghan operation

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The Independent Online

British troops in Afghanistan have carried out one of the biggest air operations of modern times, the Ministry of Defence said.





Operation Panther's Claw, an assault by Scots soldiers on one of the last Taliban strongholds in Helmand Province, began just before midnight on Friday.

Twelve Chinook helicopters, supported by 13 other aircraft including Apache and Black Hawk helicopter gunships and Harrier jets, dropped more than 350 troops from the Black Watch into Babaji, north of Lashkar Gah.

The aim was to secure a number of canal and river crossings to establish a permanent International Security Assistance Force (ISAF) presence in what was previously a Taliban stronghold.

The troops were followed by Royal Engineers and explosive teams who spent the last two days building checkpoints - soon to be permanently occupied by the Afghan National Police - on the main routes in and out of the area to hinder movement by insurgents.

The insurgents launched a number of attacks against the Black Watch but each was fought off and the Scottish troops have secured three main crossing points: the Lui Mandey Wadi crossing, the Nahr-e-Burgha canal and the Shamalan canal.

They also found 1.3 tonnes of poppy seed and a number of improvised explosive devices and mines before they could be laid.

Lieutenant Colonel Nick Richardson, spokesman for Task Force Helmand, said the find demonstrated the link between the insurgency and opium production "which brings so much misery to the streets of the UK".

He said: "This operation has been achieved in many ways due to the arrival of extra US troops into the south of Helmand, which has provided ISAF with a massive increase in capability which we believe will significantly change the balance in the province."

The operation is the latest in a series over the last few months where UK and ISAF forces have taken and held ground in Helmand.

Chief of Defence Staff Sir Jock Stirrup told ITV News: "All operations in Afghanistan are significant but we're in a particularly challenging period at the moment with the run-up to the presidential election.

"The provision of sufficient levels of security so that we can have a successful election is extremely important. Of course, this operation is all part of the wider ISAF plan to deliver that."

He said the operation was "fairly large" but also significant because Helmand was the focus for most violence and insurgent activity in Afghanistan.

"That's understandable because this is vital ground for the enemy," he said.

"In that context, this is the point of confrontation between ISAF and the Taliban. So, you can imagine that it's a pretty crucial operation."

Asked whether there could be more troops in Helmand were it not for political refusal, Sir Jock said: "We are constrained in what we can actually sustain out here in theatre on an enduring basis, and this is an enduring campaign - we have to be here for the long haul so there is a limit to what we can do.

"The numbers that we are talking about are not going to make a fundamental difference to the conduct of this campaign but they will enable us to do more things, and to do more things more quickly."

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