Thu, Oct 19, 2006 - Page 5 News List

British pull out of southern Afghan district

OPERATIONAL SUCCESS The leader of NATO forces in Afghanistan said the pullout reflected military progress but that forces would return if the situation demands it

AP , KABUL AND KANDAHAR, AFGHANISTAN

British troops have pulled out of a troubled southern Afghanistan district after reaching an agreement with tribal elders, while fighting killed 44 suspected Taliban militants across the country, officials said.

NATO, meanwhile, said that it is launching a new countrywide operation with Afghan forces to keep pressure on the Taliban through the fall and winter after the worst fighting in five years.

Mark Laity, a NATO spokesman in Kabul, said on Tuesday the decision to withdraw British troops from Helmand Province's Musa Qala district follows an agreement with tribal elders and the provincial governor, and was supported by President Hamid Karzai.

"There has not been any contact with the Taliban, and they are not involved in this," Laity said.

He said the troops would leave Afghan security forces in charge.

Musa Qala has been one of the most volatile regions of Helmand Province, where about 4,000 British troops deployed in the spring have met stiffer-than-expected resistance from resurgent Taliban militants.

General David Richards, commander of the 32,000-strong NATO-led force in Afghanistan, said the redeployment reflects the operation's success.

But "we will continue to go back into Musa Qala if the security situation demands it," Richards said.

At a news conference in London on Tuesday, British Prime Minister Tony Blair said the Iraq and Afghanistan missions were important to British and global security.

"If we walk away before the job is done from either of those two countries, we will leave a situation in which the very people that we're fighting everywhere, including in extremism in our own country, are heartened and emboldened and we can't afford that to happen," he said.

Elsewhere in Afghanistan, heavy fighting continued on Tuesday.

A coalition airstrike killed a suspected midlevel Taliban commander and up to 15 other militants in southern Uruzgan Province.

A NATO statement on the strike did not name the suspected Taliban commander.

Afghan army forces battled insurgents near the eastern border with Pakistan in a clash that killed 24 suspected militants and a soldier, said Defense Ministry spokesman General Mohammed Zair Azimi.

It was not immediately possible to independently confirm the toll.

In Helmand's Garmser district, police killed four suspected Taliban and arrested six others, said Ghulam Muhiddin, the provincial governor's spokesman.

In neighboring Kandahar Province, suspected Taliban destroyed an oil tanker transporting fuel for NATO-led forces and killed its driver, said a police official, General Abdul Raziq.

A rocket hit a house during a nighttime clash between suspected Taliban insurgents and NATO and Afghan security forces in a southern Afghan village, causing civilian casualties, police said yesterday.

One Taliban was also killed and three police wounded in fighting in Helmand Province on Tuesday.

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