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NATO, Afghan Forces Launch Offensive Against Taliban


NATO and Afghan forces have launched a major offensive in Southern Afghanistan, targeting a key Taliban stronghold. From Pakistan, VOA Correspondent Benjamin Sand reports two senior Taliban leaders have already been captured in the operation.

More than 6,000 Afghan and NATO forces have surrounded the Taliban-held town of Musa Qala in the southern province of Helmand. Taliban insurgents have occupied the village for nearly a year.

Local residents say heavy fighting erupted late Friday with an estimated 2,000 hardcore Taliban fighters still holed up inside the Afghan village.

NATO spokesman Major Charles Anthony says the operation is expected to last several days and will ultimately restore civilian government to the embattled town. "The aim is to restore governance to Musa Qala," he said. "The people there are not satisfied living under Taliban tyranny, and our aim is to ensure that the people there can have the governments they deserve and on that has been imposed on them."

Afghan officials say at least 12 militants have been killed. Two children and a British soldier were also killed in the fighting.

The Afghan defense ministry says its forces captured two militant commanders during the operation, including the Taliban-appointed governor of Helmand, Mullah Rahim Akhond.

The Taliban overran Musa Qala last February. British forces withdrew from the region several months earlier after local tribal leaders negotiated a controversial and short-lived truce with the insurgents.

The town is the only major population center Taliban forces have managed to capture and hold in recent years. As a result, Musa Qala has emerged as powerful propaganda tool for the insurgents and critical target for NATO and Afghan forces. The entire province remains a key Taliban stronghold and a central front in the fight against the Islamist militants.

Saturday, local police in Helmand accused Taliban insurgents of hanging a 12-year-old boy accused of spying.

The war-torn region is also home to Afghanistan's booming illegal drug trade, which Taliban forces use to finance their operations.

This has been the region's bloodiest year since U.S.-led forces invaded Afghanistan in 2001. About 6,000 people have been killed in insurgency related violence, and both sides are vowing to maintain the pressure in the year ahead.

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