Fears for British troops as Taliban launch new attack

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The Independent Online

Yesterday, the deputy governor of Helmand province and 100 Afghan troops were surrounded by more than 200 Taliban fighters, and only escaped after 200 more soldiers arrived to rescue them.

At least three Afghan police and 16 Taliban fighters were killed. The fighting continued late into the day and the local governor, Ghulam Muhiddin, said: "We are expecting there will be a lot more dead bodies."

This is the front line where 3,300 British troops will be deployed over the next few months. The deployment is part of an effort to bring security to southern Afghanistan. The International Development Secretary, Hilary Benn, admitted last week there was "real danger" for British troops in Helmand.

Yesterday's fighting began as a police convoy sent to hunt down Taliban rebels in Helmand's Sangin district was ambushed by around 30 insurgents. When reinforcements were sent to help, they were ambushed by a bigger force lying in wait for them.

The deputy provincial governor, Mullah Mir, was travelling in another convoy that was also pinned down for some time by the Taliban, before reinforcements came to his rescue. In all, four separate attacks were made on Afghan police and troops. American A10 war planes were called in to provide air cover.

"We're sending more reinforcements. The fighting is still going on," Mullah Mir said last night.

The attacks come only days after the Afghan government said that militants from Iraq are coming to Afghanistan and importing tactics from the insurgency there. Earlier this week, an Iraqi man was arrested crossing into Afghanistan from Iran, together with three Pakistani Kashmiris. Afghan police said they were planning to carry out bomb attacks. British forces are being deployed to the south to take control of security, assist with reconstruction, and help the Afghan authorities rein in the opium trade. Helmand is a centre for opium poppy cultivation. It is also part of the Taliban heartland.

Until now, British troops in Afghanistan have been stationed in Kabul and the north, where they have been welcomed by ethnic minorities. But Helmand is Pashtun territory, where the Western presence in Afghanistan is unpopular.

British troops will not be directly responsible for hunting down Taliban remnants: that is being done by US forces. But it appears likely the Taliban will seek out the British.

A wave of tactics have been imported from Iraq in the south over the past year, including suicide bombings and assassinations. But yesterday's fighting was a return to earlier tactics by the Taliban.

US bases in the south have come under repeated attack from Taliban insurgents who have tried to storm them without success. There have been fewer such attacks in recent months because, many believe, the Taliban sustained heavy casualties. Instead, Helmand and the neighbouring province of Kandahar, where a smaller number of British troops will be deployed, have been plagued by suicide bombings. Government officials and clerics loyal to the President, Hamid Karzai, have been dragged from their homes and killed.

* A British soldier was killed in a road accident in Iraq on Thursday evening, the third UK armed forces death in a week and the 101st since the 2003 invasion. The soldier, who was with the 9th/12th Lancers, was killed on the outskirts of the southern city of Basra. The Ministry of Defence said that it did not suspect "hostile involvement".