KABUL (Reuters) - Afghan and NATO troops closed in on the centre of the Taliban stronghold of Musa Qala on Monday, but have yet to take full control of the southern Afghan town, officials said.
As the only sizeable town in Taliban hands, Musa Qala in Helmand province is symbolic for both sides in the conflict and its capture would be a major military boost for the Afghan government and its Western backers.
“We are on the outskirts of Musa Qala and that’s where we are at the moment. We will continue with the operation until we have got Musa Qala under control,” said Lieutenant Colonel Richard Eaton, British army spokesman in Helmand.
Taliban forces had fled Musa Qala toward mountains in the north, a resident said.
Thousands of Afghan, British and U.S. troops surrounded Musa Qala in an operation to retake it that began on Friday.
Soldiers from the Afghan army and the NATO-led International Security Assistance Force (ISAF) had entered “the outskirts of the main part of Musa Qala today”, NATO said on its Web site.
An ISAF spokesman had said earlier on Monday that Afghan troops had reached the centre of the town.
As well a Taliban military stronghold, Musa Qala has also become the major Afghan centre for heroin production in a province that produces nearly half the world’s supply of its raw material, opium, Afghan and international officials say.
NATO forces in Afghanistan have struggled to consolidate battlefield victories in the past due to the weakness of Afghan forces, particularly the police, who have been unable to enforce security and foster development and the rule of law.
Gordon Brown, on his first visit to Afghanistan since he became prime minister in June, said Britain would do all it could to support development in Musa Qala.
“I think you’ll see in the next few days that this action will be effective, that it will work and that it will bring long-term and lasting results,” Brown told a news conference in the Afghan capital, Kabul.
“When that action is completed, we will give support for the economic and social development of the area,” he said.
Afghan and U.S.-led coalition troops earlier killed several Taliban fighters in an air strike and a raid near the town.
Mainly U.S. troops from the coalition force, separate from ISAF, are also active in the area, targeting Taliban fighters.
Coalition forces killed “several militants” in a “precision strike” targeting a Taliban weapons supplier in the Musa Qala district on Sunday, the U.S. military said.
Afghan and coalition forces then raided compounds targeting people associated with the weapons supplier and killed several militants, detained 10 more and wounded two civilians.
A coalition spokesman said the action was not connected to the ISAF operation in the area.
An Afghan army helicopter crashed in the Sayedabad district of Wardak province southwest of the capital Kabul on Monday, killing four soldiers, an army commander at the scene told Reuters. He said it was most likely a technical problem, but the Taliban said they had shot down the aircraft.
Two British soldiers have been killed in the fighting and hundreds of civilians have fled the area. It is ISAF’s policy not to release Taliban casualty figures.
As Afghan and ISAF forces moved in closer to the town, the Taliban counter-attacked near the town of Sangin, further south in Helmand, but inflicted no casualties.
After coming under sustained Taliban attacks, British troops pulled out of Musa Qala in October last year in a truce criticised by U.S. commanders that handed control of the town to tribal elders. The Taliban then seized Musa Qala in February.
Additional reporting by Jon Hemming, Adrian Croft and Abdul Qudoos; Writing by Jon Hemming; Editing by Keith Weir