KAJAKI DAM, Afghanistan (Reuters) - British troops backed by special forces completed one of the largest logistical operations of the 7-year Afghan conflict on Tuesday, delivering a 200-tonne turbine to a remote Taliban-dominated region.
The huge turbine, which promises to deliver power across south Afghanistan once running, was carried by a 100-vehicle convoy that inched its way across Taliban territory for five days to reach a hydroelectric dam on the Kajaki reservoir.
It faced frequent attacks during the journey, soldiers accompanying it said, with an estimated 250 Taliban killed along the way as the sensitive load, flanked by helicopters and heavy armour, snaked 160 km (100 miles) north from Kandahar.
Engineers who carved a route through dry rivers and mountain passes said it was the largest clearance operation undertaken by British forces since World War Two. To keep it secret, media were barred from reporting on the mission until it was complete.
“It was a huge achievement,” said Lieutenant-Colonel Dave Wilson, the commanding officer of the 23 Engineer Regiment. “It was carried out through some of the most heavily mined areas of Afghanistan.”
U.S. and British special forces teams were dropped ahead of the convoy to sweep through villages along the treacherous Helmand river valley, “sanitising” Taliban strongholds to allow the convoy safe passage, military sources said.
While medics had prepared for casualties, commanders said there was only one wounded among the British, American, Canadian and Australian troops who took part in the operation -- a British soldier was crushed when a trailer collapsed on him.
On Tuesday, British opposition leader David Cameron arrived in the Helmand region on a private visit to meet troops of the 2 Para, military sources said. The 2 Paras have suffered heavy casualties in recent months.
The British military, which took the lead for the final, perilous stages to deliver the turbine, said it had involved around 5,000 troops, a fleet of helicopters, and French and U.S. fighter jets used to target known Taliban hideouts.
“As a template for the rest of this country, it’s shown that when we want to, at a time and a place of our choosing, we can overmatch the Taliban, no question,” said Lieutenant-Colonel James Learmont of 7 Para Royal Horse Artillery.
In order to win over villagers in some areas, British forces held meetings with locals to negotiate the convoy’s passage, and paid $25,000 in compensation to one community for disruption.
The Taliban had agreed to maintain a ceasefire in some areas but violated the deal, British commanders said.
The Chinese-made turbine will be installed as part of a project funded by the American development agency USAID to increase the output of the Kajaki power plant.
Chinese engineers already on the ground will install the equipment, which will boost the capacity of the plant, built in 1975, to three turbines with an output of 51 MegaWatts. Around 1.8 million Afghans are expected to benefit from the project.
“The opposition said it would never happen but it did,” said Lieutenant-Colonel Rufus MacNeil. “If you want a mark in the sand for Afghan reconstruction, then this is it.”
The scale and complexity of the operation has given those serving under the 75,000-strong, NATO-led force in Afghanistan an opportunity to boast about cooperation at a time when critics say the coalition lacks strength and coherence.
The turbine, split into seven sections each weighing between 22 and 30 tonnes, was flown on Russian transport aircraft into Kandahar, once a Taliban stronghold in the south and now the headquarters for Canadian operations.
It was then put on giant trucks and began its voyage late last Wednesday, travelling at barely 3 km an hour under a heavy Canadian, British and U.S. military escort, flanked by helicopter gunships and a large troop presence.
Editing by Sanjeev Miglani and Paul Tait
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