Violence escalates in Afghanistan

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The Independent Online

The storming of Musa Qala was ferocious. Hundreds of Taliban fighters poured incessant fire into the government buildings and police station. The ensuing battle was the longest and fiercest since the end of the war four years ago. As homes and shops were set alight, Qari Mohammed Yousef, a Taliban commander, used his satellite telephone to announce to a news agency that the town in Helmand had fallen to the "forces of Islam".

The Taliban were eventually forced to retreat, but the scale of the offensive was a symbolic declaration of intent as British troops pour into the province for their new mission in Afghanistan.

British forces evacuated the injured from Musa Qala, leaving the actual fighting, they insisted, to Afghan forces. The interior ministry, in Kabul, declared that 40 Islamists had been killed, although police said they had recovered only 14 bodies. The official body count registered 13 police killed and five wounded.

The deputy governor of Helmand province, Amir Mohammad Akhundzada, said: "It was the biggest attack in this area since the fall of the Taliban. They must have been planning this for some time."

Sangin district, where yesterday's fighting occurred, is a mountain area close to the point where Helmand, Uruzgan and Kandahar, three of Afghanistan's most lawless provinces, meet. It has been an area of intense Taliban activity for the past year and a half. It is also a region thick with opium poppies this summer as Helmand heads for what is likely to be a record harvest.

Violence was spreading throughout the country, but was at its most intense in Helmand and Kandahar, the two provinces where the vast bulk of the 6,000-strong British forces would be based. There is growing confusion over the role of the British troops in the country. The Government stated that the British deployment would concentrate on peacekeeping, staying clear of the US-led "search and destroy" operation, and also the controversial eradication of the opium crop. However since then, John Reid, just prior to his departure as Defence Secretary, acknowledged that there would be "overlaps" between the British and American operations.

The bulk of the force will be stationed at Camp Bastion. Officially, the force is being deployed for three years at a cost of £1bn. But Jack Straw, when he was Foreign Secretary, said that Britain and the West would have to remain engaged there for up to a decade.

The recently arrived commander of British forces, Brigadier Ed Butler, has acknowledged that his force is in Afghanistan for the "long haul".

The Taliban have kept up a barrage of threats. "We will turn Afghanistan into a river of blood for the British," said one of its commanders, Mohammed Hanif Sherzad, who says that he speaks for Mullah Omar, the former leader of the Taliban who is now believed to be somewhere in Pakistan. "We have beaten them before and we will beat them again."