June 17, 2008 in Nation/World

Taliban launches major offensive, seizes villages

Candace Rondeaux and Javed Hamdard Washington Post

ISLAMABAD, Pakistan – Hundreds of Taliban fighters took control of seven villages in southern Afghanistan Monday in what appeared to be a major offensive near the country’s second-largest city, Kandahar, according to Afghan officials.

An estimated 500 Taliban fighters swept into several villages in the Arghandab District, about 15 miles northwest of Kandahar, officials said. Agha Lalai Wali, an official with the government-sponsored Peace and Reconciliation Commission in Kandahar, said the fighters surged into the area Sunday evening, setting up several checkpoints in the district. Wali said local residents had reported seeing dozens of fighters believed to be of Pakistani and Arab origin traveling in the area in pickup trucks shortly before the incursion.

The Taliban’s seizure of the villages comes three days after a spectacular prison break at a Kandahar jail, during which an estimated 1,000 to 1,200 prisoners, many of them Taliban fighters, escaped.

A spokesman for the Afghan Defense Ministry, Brig. Gen. M. Zaher Azimi, said late Monday evening that hundreds of Afghan soldiers were being deployed from Kabul and elsewhere around the country to the south to mount a counteroffensive following the attacks in Arghandab.

Officials with the NATO-led International Security Assistance Force said Western troops were also being redeployed to support Afghan forces heading the counteroffensive. A spokesman for the force, Gen. Carlos Brancos, said he could not confirm that the Taliban had taken control of the villages in Arghandab, but said ISAF officials had received “information that Taliban insurgents were active in the area.”

Kandahar, a city of roughly 450,000, is considered the birthplace of the Taliban, and fighters trying to infiltrate the city have frequently used Arghandab as a gateway. Arghandab was relatively peaceful until Mullah Naqib, a local leader known for keeping the peace, died there last year. It has since been the scene of several fierce firefights between NATO forces and insurgents.

Afghan officials said Taliban fighters have said they plan to march on Kandahar from Arghandab.

“The Taliban are getting stronger and stronger, and after they attacked the prison, that gave them higher morale,” Wali said.

The prison break appeared to be well-planned and sophisticated. A suicide bomber blew up a water tank trunk near the main gates of Sarposa Prison, and fighters used gunfire and rockets to launch a broader assault. Hundreds of inmates fled into waiting cars and vans commandeered by insurgents, according to Afghan officials in Kandahar.

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