Afghan villagers flee the Taliban

NATO forces set to battle insurgents

June 18, 2008|By M. Karim Faiez and Laura King | M. Karim Faiez and Laura King,LOS ANGELES TIMES

KABUL, Afghanistan - Thousands of frightened villagers fled a district in southern Afghanistan that was overrun by Taliban fighters, as NATO and Afghan forces flew in hundreds of reinforcements yesterday to confront the insurgents.

About 700 Afghan troops were airlifted to the main coalition base outside Kandahar after Taliban fighters moved into nearly a dozen villages in the strategic Arghandab district, a fertile swath of land 10 miles northwest of Kandahar.

Canadian troops, who have the primary responsibility for securing Kandahar and its environs, were also repositioning themselves in response to the developments, said NATO spokesman Mark Laity. He declined to give details about their deployment, citing operational security.

Local officials and villagers said the Taliban, who pushed into the area Sunday night, were laying mines, blocking roads and culverts, and destroying footbridges, apparently preparing to do battle with arriving Afghan and Western troops.

While the two sides girded for potential confrontation, up to 4,000 villagers took refuge in Kandahar, despite their reluctance to leave their fields and farms. Arghandab is known for its grapes and pomegranates, which wither in the summer heat without constant care.

Harvest time was to have been later this month.

"The Taliban told families to leave the area," said shopkeeper Abdul Jalil. "We are afraid of a big fight very soon." A Taliban field commander in Arghandab, reached by telephone, boasted that his fighters were determined to hold their positions. He said his force had been bolstered by hundreds of prisoners who escaped Kandahar's main prison last week.

A spokesman for the coalition, Brig. Gen. Carlos Branco, disputed estimates that hundreds of Taliban fighters were in the area. He said troops had patrolled the disputed area yesterday without encountering resistance.

But villagers' accounts appeared to bear out the presence of a substantial Taliban fighting force, and the Afghan Defense Ministry said in a statement that between 300 and 400 "terrorists" had moved into Arghandab.

M. Karim Faiez and Laura King write for the Los Angeles Times.

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