Warplanes join fresh fighting in Afghanistan

Afghan troops, backed by coalition planes and artillery, battled a strong force of Taliban insurgents overnight and early on Thursday in southern Afghanistan, already reeling from some of the heaviest fighting in years.

New fighting erupted late on Wednesday in the Panjwayi district of Kandahar province, a coalition spokesperson said, as villagers reported a heavy bombardment that lasted until morning.

Afghan soldiers clashed with a “sizeable Taliban force” in the Pashmal area of Panjwayi, Major Scott Lundy told Agence France-Presse.

The coalition was called in and “used artillery and close-air support to destroy the Taliban”, he said.

“There is no assessment of dead or wounded at this point.”

A resident of the area said that before the engagement began “coalition troops were calling on people to move out of their homes and, if they have a weapon, bring them out”.

“I saw a heavy bombardment and it lasted until early in the morning. The bombing was the heaviest I have ever seen,” Mohammed Salem said.

The operation was a follow-up to one in Panjwayi district on Sunday and Monday, which the coalition said killed up to 80 Taliban.

Afghan officials say at least 16 civilians were also killed but villagers, who said their homes were bombed by the coalition, reported seeing many more civilian dead.

The coalition denied it had used bombs, saying it had employed “precision fire” from warplanes against the Taliban, who had fled into locals’ homes.

The past week has seen some of the heaviest fighting since the ultra-Islamist Taliban was forced from government in 2001 by an Afghan and foreign force led by the United States.

More than 400 people, most of them rebels, have been killed in various clashes, including some of the biggest field battles for months, in southern Kandahar, Helmand and Uruzgan provinces.

The fighting in Panjwayi had sent up to 3 000 people fleeing to Kandahar city for safety, an International Organisation for Migration (IOM) official said.

“They are scared, they are terrified,” said IOM Kandahar programme officer Nasim Karim. “If they don’t support the Taliban, they are threatened.
If they do, then from the other side they are being bombed and shot at.”

The surge in violence comes weeks before a Nato-led stabilisation force is due to take over the bulk of international operations in the south from a US-led coalition that is mandated to carry out active counter-insurgency operations.

The Nato force will number about 18 000 when the takeover is completed, with the US dropping its troop level, now at about 22 000, by about 2 000.

While the insurgency traditionally heats up as the weather warms, it has been particularly active this year. Some analysts say it suggests the rebel force is more organised and determined than ever.

A report published on Wednesday by Britain’s International Institute for Strategic Studies said Nato forces are likely to come under increased attack from the Taliban as the US withdraws some of its troops.

“This year will be crucial for Afghanistan as well as for Nato as it expands its mission to the south,” said the report.

“The Taliban, taking advantage of what they perceive to be an opportunity during the switch from US to Nato deployments, are likely to continue to increase their operational tempo—not least because they know that casualties amongst European Nato member states may mobilise domestic opinion in those states against ‘the war’.”

But the European Union’s Afghan envoy, Francesc Vendrell, warned Taliban militants to be prepared for a “bloody nose”, saying in Washington on Wednesday that Western forces were prepared to “take the bull by the horns” in confronting the rebels.—AFP

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