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Afghanistan: Taliban Stronghold Recaptured Near Strategic Dam Area

An Afghan policeman guards a checkpoint in Musa Qala after Taliban fighters fled the town (AFP) Afghan government troops and NATO forces are patrolling the southern town of Musa Qala today after driving out Taliban fighters who had been entrenched there for 10 months. But even as the troops searched for booby traps and stranded militants, the Afghan Defense Ministry said hundreds of Taliban fighters had launched a counterattack in the nearby district of Sangin -- an area that includes a road project linked to the reconstruction of the strategic Kajaki hydroelectric dam.

The Defense Ministry said the few remaining Taliban fighters in Musa Qala ended their resistance today after Afghan and NATO troops moved into the district administrative center on December 10.

The Taliban claimed last week that it had as many as 2,000 fighters in the area. Reports suggest many of those fighters fled from Musa Qala into the mountains further north.

In Musa Qala, residents' lives appeared to be returning to normal after most of the militants fled. Haji Abdul Karim, a shopkeeper whose business had been closed because of the fighting, told RFE/RL's Radio Free Afghanistan that he opened his store today for the first time since last week. He added that he hadn't seen any Taliban fighters in the town today.

RFE/RL's Radio Free Afghanistan correspondent Saleh Mohammad Saleh reported from the town of Musa Qala today that there is no sign of fighting.

But Saleh said that the Taliban is claiming successes elsewhere in Helmand Province. "The Taliban claim that they have taken many parts of the Sangin district," to the south of Musa Qala, he said. According to Saleh, the Taliban claims that its counterattack to the south has cut off an important road that passes through the Sangin district to link the strategic Kajaki hydroelectric dam to the provincial capital, Lashkar Gah.

The Afghan Defense Ministry acknowledged that several hundred Taliban fighters launched a counterattack against NATO and Afghan government troops in Sangin district. But ministry officials refuted the Taliban's claim that they took control of parts of the district, saying the militants were thwarted by Afghan and NATO troops who had anticipated a counterattack in Sangin.

One man from Char Bagh -- a village to the south of Musa Qala and near Sangin district -- told RFE/RL today that NATO air strikes are continuing to target Taliban militants near Sangin. "As far as the fighting in the town of Musa Qala goes, all of the armed Taliban have left that area. But the air strikes are continuing here today," he said.

Taliban Defections, Arrests

On December 9, Afghan President Hamid Karzai said he made the decision to storm the town of Musa Qala following reports of brutality there by the Taliban and foreign Al-Qaeda fighters.

Karzai also said the successful attack was aided by some local Taliban leaders who had switched allegiance to his government. Ali Shah Mazloomyar, a Pashtun tribal leader in the Musa Qala district, told RFE/RL today there are reports that other powerful Taliban commanders have been captured by NATO forces.

"Abdul Rahim Akhund, a commander of the Taliban in Helmand Province, was appointed by the Taliban as the governor of this area. And another person, Abdul Matin Akhund, was also a powerful man," Mazloomyar said. "If these two people really have been arrested, and another -- Mullah Abdul Salam Akhund -- has really switched sides and joined the government, it will certainly weaken the morale of the Taliban because they cannot find such powerful people who had so much influence in this region. It will be very difficult for the Taliban to replace these people."

After coming under sustained Taliban attacks, British troops pulled out of Musa Qala in October 2006 after striking a heavily criticized truce that handed control of the town to tribal elders like Mazloomyar. But the Taliban seized Musa Qala in February and made it a base for guerrilla operations aimed at thwarting the reconstruction of the Kajaki Dam.

Of the more than 14,000 reconstruction projects under way in Afghanistan, NATO Secretary-General Jaap de Hoop Scheffer has described the Kajaki Dam as the project with the most strategic and psychological significance. The NATO chief says the dam will provide electricity to more than 2 million people and their businesses in southern Afghanistan once a giant power turbine is installed and power lines to the city of Kandahar are repaired. But to transport the giant turbine to Kajaki, workers must first complete work to improve the road that passes through the Sangin district on its way to the dam site.

A Key Location

British Prime Minister Gordon Brown on December 10 visited a British Royal Marines base in Helmand Province just 70 kilometers from the fighting in Musa Qala. Later in Kabul, Brown insisted that the offensive against the Taliban in the area will allow reconstruction work to continue.

"This action in Musa Qala is an example of how Afghan forces -- working with British and other forces -- can make a difference," Brown said. "And there is no doubt that succeeding in Musa Qala will make a huge difference, both to how people see the weakness of the Taliban in the future and the ability of the government to build, not just militarily and politically, [but also] with social and economic progress for the people of the area."

Meanwhile, Karzai says the high-profile role of government troops in the battle shows that the Afghan National Army is becoming more sophisticated and able to provide security in provincial regions of the country. "We would like to have the international community continue to add to the building of the Afghan forces -- continue to add to the 'Afghanization' of this whole exercise -- so that Afghanistan can be ready in time to take on the responsibility of defending the Afghan country with Afghan institutions and Afghan ability," Karzai said.

(RFE/RL's Radio Free Afghanistan correspondent Saleh Mohammad Saleh in Musa Qala and Jan Alekozai in Prague contributed to this story.)

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