New assault takes big toll on Taliban, NATO says

Posted in NATO | 04-Sep-06 | Author: Carlotta Gall| Source: International Herald Tribune

NATO said 200 Taliban were killed Sunday around Pashmul.
KABUL NATO and Afghan forces encountered fierce resistance from Taliban rebels on Sunday in a new offensive in southern Afghanistan, where four Canadian soldiers were killed and several were wounded in the fighting, officials said.

A NATO spokesman, Mark Laity, said that reports from the field estimated that as many as 200 Taliban fighters were killed Sunday, with 80 people captured by Afghan troops. Casualty figures for the Taliban, in particular, have been impossible to confirm, but, if true, the toll would be one of the highest in what has been months of intensifying battles in the south.

It was also unclear whether some of the dead might have been civilians. Even before NATO took command of operations in southern Afghanistan, officials from the Afghan Independent Human Rights Commission were complaining of civilian casualties in its airstrikes against insurgents, and some villagers who have tried to flee in advance of military operations have reported being shelled.

Military officials said they had warned tribal elders about the approaching operation and had told people to leave to avoid civilian casualties. But the governor of Kandahar Province said people had been told not to allow the Taliban into their houses and not to go out on the roads.

The battle occurred a day after 14 Britons were killed when their Nimrod MR2 reconnaissance plane crashed near Kandahar early in the operation.

Hundreds of Taliban fighters have been massing in the Panjwai and Zhare districts, just west of Kandahar, the main city in southern Afghanistan. For months, the rebels have mounted attacks on and near the main highway, stirring fear of an imminent assault in Kandahar.

"The Taliban presence in Panjwai is undoubtedly having a large psychological effect on Kandahar and has to be dealt with," a senior NATO officer said last week.

Heavy fighting in May and sporadic violence since have forced hundreds of families to flee Panjwai and seek refuge in Kandahar. Airstrikes by NATO and a suicide car bombing in the busy bazaar in Panjwai have caused dozens of civilian casualties in the area in recent months, according to witnesses.

In response, NATO officials planned a long operation to clear the area of Taliban fighters and establish a lasting security presence to allow displaced families to return safely and to permit reconstruction.

On Saturday, NATO forces in Kandahar Province, mostly Canadian troops, fired the opening shots in the operation, pounding the area with 40 strikes from artillery and aircraft, said Gen. Zaher Azimi, the Afghan Defense Ministry spokesman.

At dawn on Sunday, Afghan and NATO forces began pushing ahead on the ground. They immediately encountered mines, General Azimi said, but they cleared them and advanced slowly.

A NATO spokesman, speaking at a news conference, said that the troops encountered a "substantial number of insurgents in that area" and heavy defenses that the Taliban had put up.

The Canadian commander of NATO forces in southern Afghanistan, General David Fraser, told reporters on Sunday evening that the four soldiers who had been killed were Canadian and that several more had been wounded, Agence France-Presse reported from Kandahar.

The battle focused on Pashmul in the Zhare district, Azimi said. Early in the day, he said troops were reporting that as many as 89 Taliban had been killed, though that estimate was made before the broader NATO estimate.

"This is completely different from other operations. We are going very slowly," he said, adding that it would take weeks. "We will not abandon again the places we are capturing."

The governor of Kandahar Province, Asadullah Khalid, said by telephone that he had asked NATO and Afghan officials to move against Taliban in the area for months, but that the Afghan police were too weak and that troops had often been occupied elsewhere.