Afghan troops retake Taliban town

Hundreds of Taliban fighters retreated in trucks and motorbikes from a key southern Afghan community they overran last February as Afghan and international troops closed in on the town’s center.

Visiting British Prime Minister Gordon Brown said Monday that the victory in Musa Qala, the only important territory that the militants controlled, will have positive longterm results for the Afghan campaign.

It also gives NATO a symbolic triumph in the deadliest year of fighting in Afghanistan since 2001 and boosts hopes the Afghan government can expand into a poppy rich area where it now wields little influence.

But Musa Qala has bounced back and forth between government and Taliban control, falling into militant hands in February despite the presence of British troops nearby, and the question remained whether overstretched Afghan and NATO troops can hold the town in the long term.

Some 7,000 British troops have faced fierce battles throughout northern Helmand this year _ in Kajaki, Sangin, Gereshk and Musa Qala _ the world’s largest opium poppy growing region, from which the Taliban derive tens of millions of dollars.

President Hamid Karzai said the decision to enter Musa Qala followed reports of brutality there by the Taliban, al-Qaida and foreign fighters. But Karzai also said local Taliban commanders had committed to switch their allegiance to the Afghan government.

Defense Ministry spokesman Gen. Mohammad Zahir Azimi said Afghan, British and U.S. forces had ”completely captured” Musa Qala, a town in the opium poppy growing belt of northern Helmand province, and a Taliban spokesman said its forces had retreated.

At least 10 Taliban were killed on Monday, on top of more than a dozen killed since fighting intensified on Friday.

NATO’s International Security Assistance Force said ISAF and Afghan troops had entered the outskirts of the main part of Musa Qala but would now proceed cautiously into the town center because of improvised explosive devices.

An Afghan army commander, Brig. Gen. Gul Agha Naebi, said Musa Qala was surrounded and that troops were 500 yards (meters) from the town center.

”Both sides are still exchanging fire,” he said. ”There is still resistance from the Taliban. I think these are foreign fighters, al-Qaida members that we are facing. They are trying to create ways for retreat.”

A Taliban spokesman, Qari Yousef Ahmadi, said militant fighters left Musa Qala as a strategic decision to avoid Taliban and civilian casualties.

A resident of Musa Qala, Haji Mohammad Rauf, said he saw Taliban fighters leave the town in trucks and motorbikes around noon. Two hours later, hundreds of Afghan soldiers streamed into town and established security checkpoints, he said.

Taliban militants overran Musa Qala in February, four months after British troops left the town following a contentious peace agreement that gave security responsibilities to Afghan elders. That deal was criticized by U.S. officials behind the scenes as surrendering to the Taliban.

NATO commanders had long said they would take back Musa Qala at a time of the Afghan government’s choosing, but NATO and Afghan forces will now have to work to hold the town in a region, Helmand province, that has seen the fiercest fighting in Afghanistan this year.

Lt. Col. Richard Eaton, a British military spokesman, said a unit of predominantly Afghan soldiers would be stationed in town.

Brown, who visited troops in Iraq before landing in Afghanistan on Monday, said he had ”no doubt” the Musa Qala operation would be successful and that social and economic progress would follow military action. During a stop at Camp Bastion in Helmand province, Brown predicted it would ”bring longterm and lasting results.”

At least 40 British soldiers have been killed in Afghanistan this year and 86 have died in the country since 2001.

This year has been the deadliest since the U.S.-led invasion in 2001. More than 6,200 people have been killed in insurgency-related violence, according to an AP tally of figures from Western and Afghan officials.

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